Contact Tracing: The Battle Against COVID-19

Published June 9th, 2020 by Dr. Audrey Kostrzewa, PharmD, MPH, BCPS
Fact Checked by

What is contact tracing?

Contract tracing is a bit like detective work since it involves tracking down anyone who may have come into recent contact with an individual diagnosed with COVID-19 and quarantining them.

While you may be hearing about this for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing has been used for decades by your local and state health departments to stop the spread of disease (remember Ebola?).

Contact tracing involves a case investigator who will work with an individual infected with COVID-19 to remember everyone who they have been in contact with recently. Then contact tracers reach out to the contacts. To protect privacy, contacts are only told that they may have been exposed to a patient with the infection (i.e., no personal identifying information is shared).

Depending on the disease, notification may also include recommendations for getting tested, quarantining, interactions with others, and symptoms to monitor for. Warning contacts of possible exposure and equipping them with information and support helps slow down the spread of disease.

Contact tracing and COVID-19

Contact tracing is an important part of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as people begin to come in contact with each other again. It requires special training including knowledge about the disease, but also good interpersonal and interviewing skills.

Due to the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of case investigators and contact tracers needed is very high (>100,000 by some estimates). Community needs vary across the United States based on number of cases, density of the population, etc.

Efforts are ramping up right now to start training and mobilizing these individuals. In addition to one-on-one contacts, data management and technology is extremely important to do this work efficiently and effectively. Having access to population-level, real-time data to monitor progress and re-evaluate needs regularly is important but also difficult.

Data sharing between local, tribal and state, and federal systems is challenging, especially due to the confidential nature of the data. Developing and adopting new technologies will help scale up efforts needed to combat COVID-19.

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What Can You Do to Help?

Why should you know about case investigation and contact tracing? Two reasons: 1) you could become a case investigator or contact tracer, and 2) you could be contacted by one.

The need for contact tracers is great so it’s all hands-on-deck. A variety of professionals as well as the general public are stepping up to help. If you are interested, consider taking this free COVID-19 contract tracing course offered by Johns Hopkins University

Additional information and training may also be obtained on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Website. If you’re interested in learning more, take a look at these websites or contact your local health department.

Public awareness, understanding, and support are crucial for this effort to be successful. If you ever get contacted by a case investigator or contact tracer, be honest and open in your responses. These trained individuals are there to support you and your community by helping to prevent further transmission of COVID-19. 

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