Contact tracing is a technique epidemiologists and public health officials have long used in the fight against diseases like HIV and tuberculosis. It’s an important tool for identifying those who might be sick and keeping the infection from spreading to others. As the nation continues to reopen, contact tracing could play a large part in our efforts to contain the spread. But many people seem apprehensive about what a contract tracer has the power to do, and what it means if one of them reaches out. Here are the facts.
While some have discussed the use of contact tracing apps, contract tracing is traditionally carried out by humans. A contact tracer is someone who identifies all of the people a sick person might have come into contact with during the period when they were infectious. Armed with this list, the contract tracer then reaches out to everyone on it to see if they are experiencing any symptoms, and to recommend they self-quarantine or self-isolate. (A quick reminder: Quarantine is when a person who has been exposed stays home and avoids contact with others just in case, while isolation is when a person who has developed symptoms stays home and avoids contact with others.)
When they find someone who is experiencing symptoms, the contact tracer will repeat the process, going through all of the people they might have come into contact with in order to identify yet more people who might have been exposed.
So if a contact tracer contacts you with the news that you were potentially exposed, what will happen next?
Contact tracers are not allowed to divulge names
First of all, if a contact tracer reaches out to you, they are not allowed to say who may have exposed you to infection. They are only allowed to tell you that you were potentially in contact with someone who was sick. This information falls under patient confidentiality.
If you have developed symptoms, the contact tracer will ask you to divulge all the places you’ve been and all of the people you have interacted with. This will include the relative amount of time you were at a business or with a particular person so they can assess the relative levels of exposure. Right now, the CDC’s current guidelines for a close contact are defined as “someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before illness onset until the time the patient is isolated.”
A contact tracer will then proceed to call all of the people or businesses you’ve named, all of whom will be informed they were exposed. Again, they won’t be given your name.
Working with a contact tracer is voluntary. At no point is someone required to list all of the places they have been or all of the people they have come into contact with. However, providing this information will allow those potentially infected to learn they are at risk and behave accordingly to prevent spreading an infection to others.
Contact tracers are expected to offer education and guidance
Part of a contact tracer’s job is to educate people about what their exposure means. This includes counseling people on the measures they should take post-exposure, from staying at home for 14 days to self-monitoring for symptoms.
Being a contact tracer requires a lot of skills, only one of which is medical knowledge of COVID-19. Contact tracers need to be able to convince complete strangers to give them detailed information about their lives while remaining sensitive to the fact that people who are sick or are just learning they might have been exposed to a dangerous disease will experience a wide range of potentially emotional reactions. Contact tracers also need to have the wherewithal to actually get in tough with all the people on their list, which is not always easy.
Hopefully, you will never get a call from a contact tracer. But if you do, at least you now have an idea of what to expect.