How Is Contact Tracing Helping In The Fight Against COVID-19?

by Kroger Health Staff

Last Updated: May 13, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic has arisen, so too has epidemiological terminology. “Flatten the curve,” “shelter-in-place,” and “social distancing” are terms that are now omnipresent in the Coronavirus-era. As states begin to lift restrictions in hopes of returning to a sense of normalcy, we see new pandemic reference language emerging. A term joining the onslaught of COVID verbiage is “contact tracing” - a protective process that is getting a lot of attention for its aid in keeping people safe as they begin to reintegrate. But how does it work? We’ve broken down everything you need to know about contact tracing and its importance in the fight against COVID-19.

What is contact tracing?
According to the CDC, contact tracing is the technique of tracking those who have been near an infected individual. It is a specialized process in which public health staff works with a patient to recall anyone who they may have come into close contact with throughout the infectious period. After collecting information, contact tracers then communicate the potential risk to exposed individuals and encourage safety measures of self-isolation or quarantine. Privacy is also honored to ensure the anonymity of the patient. Potential contacts are only informed that they may have had exposure to an infected person, but the identity of the individual is not revealed. Contact tracing has been used throughout a number of infectious disease outbreaks, including the 2014 Ebola virus epidemic, as well as the 2003 SARS pandemic. According to the WHO, contact tracing is one of the most effective outbreak containment tools.

How does it work?
COVID-19 contact tracing measures should be employed after a case has been confirmed through a diagnostic test. Upon diagnosis, a public health worker communicates with the patient to gain insight on symptoms and severity, then works with them to identify those who are close contacts. The criteria for ‘close contacts’ vary by situation and state. In some cases, being considered a “close contact” is defined as having been within 6 feet of the infected individual for more than 10 minutes, which can include those who were seated nearby on an airplane, train, or bus, even without direct interaction. Once a thorough list is compiled, the public health worker will reach out to potentially exposed individuals with instructions on how to safely limit their exposure to others.

What else do I need to know?
Recently Apple and Google announced their partnership in creating COVID-19 opt-in contact tracing technology. The system will use Bluetooth signals to determine a user’s approximate distance from those who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and will notify any user who may have been within proximity of exposure. As iOS and Android operating systems make up the vast majority of all smartphone technology worldwide, the integration will allow other apps to develop all over the world and work in tandem with one another for maximum tracing capability. Additionally, location tracking will be banned while users are utilizing the systems so individual privacy will be protected, answering the question of how diagnosed patients will remain anonymous.

In addition to new technological developments, individual states and cities are taking matters into their own hands to expand contact tracing efforts. The city of San Francisco has recently announced their partnership with the Department of Public Health, UCSF, and DIMAGI, a software company working closely with the CDC, to optimize identifying and response measures to confirmed COVID-19 cases. The goal of the partnership is to inform the potentially exposed more quickly and eliminate further spread. The state of Massachusetts, in partnership with global health organization Partners In Health, has created the Community Tracing Collaborative, which will deploy nearly 1000 contact tracers throughout the state to communicate and educate those diagnosed with COVID-19 and get in touch with anyone they may have encountered.

If implemented and executed properly, contact tracing can help to control the spread of the coronavirus and provide a level of safety as the country begins lifting stay-at-home orders. Whether you choose to opt-in to new technology or engage with a local contact tracing initiative, there is no shortage of innovative ways to help in the fight against COVID-19.

Disclaimer: The information in this story is accurate as of its publication. However, the situation surrounding COVID-19 is ever-evolving. We are working to keep our stories up-to-date as changes occur, but we also encourage everyone to check news and recommendations from the CDC, WHO, and their local authorities.