Many new words have been added to our vocabularies since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in March. Words like “social distancing,” “quarantine,” and “self-isolation” are tossed around every day now.
One phrase you may have heard is “contact tracing.” I decided to write this post to give a basic overview of contact tracing. Part of the effort is to educate myself, and another part is to provide some facts about a prevalent public health strategy that has been the target of misinformation.
So, what is contact tracing? A simple definition from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is a tactic used by public health departments to stop the spread of infectious diseases.
Contact tracing has been used for decades by health officials to stop disease transmission, including for diseases such as tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and Ebola. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health, for example, conducts routine contact tracing for STIs and tuberculosis.
For COVID-19, the contact tracing stakes are much higher. Many public health departments across the nation aren’t adequately funded now to perform tracing on the scale necessary to stop the spread of the virus.
How contact tracing works
The CDC says contact tracing helps stop the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19 by quickly identifying infected people, asking them to self-isolate or quarantine, and asking them to work with public health staff to monitor themselves for symptoms of the virus.
If you’re diagnosed with COVID-19, a public health worker may contact you and ask about your health, who you’ve been in contact with, and where you may have spent time while contagious.
How do officials know you’re sick? When you get tested at a lab or by a doctor, these medical professionals must report positive results for certain diseases (like COVID-19) to local health departments.
Public health workers also call people who’ve been in close contact with those infected by COVID-19 – even if they aren’t infected themselves. The idea is to stop the chain of transmission by identifying those infected and exposed and encouraging these people to quarantine and seek treatment.
A powerful public health tool
Contact tracing is a simple concept, and it’s been used with great success to slow down COVID-19 transmission rates in South Korea and Germany. Unfortunately, the United States hasn’t utilized contact tracing as well, and fears about privacy and a divisive political climate have given the strategy a bad rap.
The U.S. doesn’t currently have a nation-wide standard for contact tracing. As a result, each state has had to create its own program – and some states have fared better than others. A lack of federal funding has also been a problem.
Given the current rate of COVID-19 confirmed cases, the U.S. needs about 100,000 contact tracers, according to an estimate from the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Hiring that many contact tracers would cost local, state, and federal agencies about $3.7 billion, according to Scientific American, and no federal dollars have yet to be set aside for it.
When done in tandem with other public health initiatives, contact tracing can be a powerful tool to help the U.S. contain the spread of COVID-19. Hopefully, the U.S. can better utilize this tool in the coming months.