Even our best efforts to stay well — by keeping distance, frequently washing hands, restricting the size of our social circles, and wearing masks — you were still exposed to someone who tested COVID-19 positive. That being said, what should you do if you receive a call from a contact tracer?
For this reason several experts suggest three integrated strategies to help avoid a harmful revival of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths:
- Continued mitigation measures include preventive approaches such as those described above
- Easy access to the tests, with a quick release of results
- contact tracing
What is contact tracing and who does it?
Generally, contact tracing means locating and testing people known to have been in close contact with a sick person, to prevent illness like COVID-19 from spreading to an ever-widening circle of people. It’s proven effective in countries such as Germany, China, and South Korea.
Just how can we make contact tracing work in the Philippines? Public health authorities are trying to figure that out, even as cities and towns recruit people to train as contact tracers. In some places, contact tracers are volunteers; others are paid. And they have a variety of backgrounds, including public health workers, retired healthcare professionals, furloughed hospitality workers, and students. Being able to speak the language and understand the culture of those who will be called are major advantages. So is a healthy amount of empathy.
Steps in contact tracing for COVID-19
These three measures are recommended by the World Health Organization for contact tracing programs:
Close contact identification
After somebody tests positive for the COVID-19 virus, they should first receive adequate medical care and take isolation measures. Then, they may be interviewed by a contact tracer to obtain a list of people they have spent significant time with. This list should include intimate partners, family members, and anyone coming within six feet of the infected person for at least 15 minutes starting 48 hours before the symptoms that led to testing, according to the CDC. Many factors, such as whether the infected person coughed or was wearing a mask, also influence the risk of infection. Checking calendars and messages on social media can help people retrace their steps and refresh their memories about who they might have exposed.
Close contact coordination
Each person considered at risk for infection will call or text the contact tracer. That’s very tricky. If the call is unexpected, contact with the caller may be distrustful, suspicious, or even uncooperative.
If you receive a call, the advice will vary depending on the exposure: the recommendation may be to monitor the symptoms and call back if any develops for minimal exposure to someone who was not coughing. You may be advised to take self-quarantine for 14 days for more intense exposure. If you have symptoms, testing may be suggested but it may not be necessary otherwise.
The contact tracer should call back after a number of days to confirm that no symptoms have developed, and answer any questions that may have arisen. If you test positive for COVID-19, it will call your contacts, and the process will start.
Cellphone helps with contact tracing, here’s how
Researchers and tech firms soon realized that mobile phone technology could help assess who is in touch with an infected person, and the status of an individual in quarantine. For instance, there are (or are in development) applications which can:
- Warn if a person you have been near positive tests and list you as a possible contact
- Store location information over a period of time that can be easily retrieved if someone you is near positive tests
- An infected person automatically texts contacts every few days to ask if symptoms have grown
Cell phones have also been used in a few countries to enforce quarantine, although some of the measures taken may not be acceptable in the some other countries due to concerns about privacy and personal liberties. But as we enter the “new normal,” it may become more common for us to request our cell phone number when we enter a restaurant, supermarket or other business. Later, if a worker or other customer has a positive test, knowing who was there and their phone numbers can make notification of those who might have been exposed much easier.
Using cell phone technology for those who agree to participate will allow contact tracers and public health workers to allocate more resources to those who do not have a phone or do not want to share information over the phone.
Contact tracing challenges
These challenges include:
Trainees and cost
Current estimates suggest that nationally we will need between 100,000 and 300,000 contact tracers. It will require significant resources to recruit, train, and pay for these.
If contact is advised to quarantine, they may need assistance in obtaining food, medicine, child care, or other services. The contact tracer can only help with this when there are such support systems in place.
Availability of testing
Tracing contacts needs ready access to the test and timely reporting of tests.
As long as participation is voluntary a contact tracing system can only be successful if the infected person and their contacts have widespread support and acceptance.
Concerns regarding privacy and scammers
Whenever personal medical information is requested, safeguards are needed to prevent the sharing of that information accidentally or inappropriately. The Federal Trade Commission has some helpful suggestions for stopping already-surfaced scams. For example, a legitimate contract tracing program may text to tell you to expect a call, but shouldn’t ask you to click on a link or ask for personal information, such as your social security number or any financial information.
And there is debate about whether data should be centrally stored (for example, by a government agency), whether it should be compulsory to share one’s medical information, and whether individuals should be able to opt out of tracing programs.
Hopefully you and those around you are doing everything possible to limit the risk of becoming infected with the COVID-19-causing virus, and a contact tracer will never call you. But just don’t be alarmed if you do. What they do is a critical part of safely removing the pandemic’s stay-at – home orders and restrictions.