DETROIT – “Contact tracing” is being called one of the keys to winning the coronavirus (COVID-19) battle and returning to a more normal life. But what does contact tracing mean?
Michigan officials recently announced plans to hire up to 1,000 more contact tracers to work with health departments. What exactly will they be doing, and why is it so important?
UPDATE -- May 13, 2020: Michigan coronavirus cases up to 48,391; Death toll now at 4,714
Contact tracing is something public health departments routinely do for certain contagious illnesses, such as tuberculosis and measles.
Now, an army of contact tracers will be needed across the globe to track down cases of COVID-19 and stop them from spreading.
“It’s basically detective work,” said Joshua Petrie, who teaches tracing at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
Contact tracers are the boots on the ground, or in this case, on the phone, in the battle to get COVID-19 under control.
“Particularly in this pandemic context, as we’re starting to reopen things,” Petrie said. “It allows us to prevent, hopefully, a resurgence of cases.”
The goal of contact tracing is to break the chain of spread. When someone tests positive, they’re assigned to a contact tracer.
“Once we identify those cases, it’s really just contacting those cases, giving them information to isolate at home and how they can protect from spreading it to others, and then figuring out who they’ve already been in contact with,” Petrie said.
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The job involves interviewing the person to determine everyone they’ve interacted with and who could potentially be at risk.
The tracer then tracks the “contacts” down and asks them to quarantine for 14 days. It’s labor-intensive work.
“You need a lot of people to be calling, and the more cases that are out there that need to be investigated, the more work it is,” Petrie said.
When a disease is widespread in the community, contact tracing isn’t feasible. It also depends on testing.
“You really need to be able to identify the cases through testing, and if you don’t have enough testing, you’re going to miss cases, and then you’re not going to be able to trace them,” Petrie said.
Another limitation is trust. People who test positive need to be willing to share their contacts and other vital information.
“The trust is really key, and we all play a part in that,” Petrie said. “The goal here will be, as we reopen, and have relatively low numbers of cases, eventually you’ll want to be able to track them and identify early when things are starting to pick up, and identify cases early so that (you can) keep the at home so that the stay-at-home restrictions are limited to people who are sick and potentially contacts of people who are sick.”
Contact tracers also follow up frequently with their cases and their contacts to monitor their symptoms, provide information and connect with them for help or testing, if needed.
Other countries are using various phone apps to alert people if they’ve come in contact with someone who tests positive. There aren’t any plans for an app yet in the U.S. There are many privacy and trust issues with that technology.
Utah is experimenting with an app, but ultimately, human contact tracers are needed right now to get the job done.