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As COVID-19 continues to surge in many communities nationwide, we’re hearing more about a possible key to stopping the spread, a practice called contact tracing. This practice has been used for centuries by state and local health departments to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. “Contact tracing is important for any effort that needs to control spread of an infection,” American Lung Association Chief Medical Officer Dr. Albert Rizzo said. “In fact, it has been used successfully for many other diseases in history, notably tuberculosis and AIDS/HIV.”

But what exactly is contact tracing and how does it work? Allow us to break it down for you.

How Contact Tracing Works

Contact tracing involves identifying people who have a disease as well as the people they have come in contact with and asking them to work with officials to stop the spread. This often involves requiring infected individuals and their contacts to isolate or quarantine themselves. 

Specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing involves the following steps: 

  • Investigation: Public health staff interview patients with COVID-19 to help them determine everyone they have had close contact with during the time when they may have been contagious.
  • Contact tracing: Staff begin notifying these potentially exposed individuals (contacts) as rapidly and sensitively as possible, explaining their risk without revealing the identity of the infected patient.
  • Offer contact support: Staff then provide contacts with education, information and support to help them understand their personal risk and how to monitor themselves for COVID-19 symptoms. They will be asked to contact their doctor, who may recommend they get tested. 
  • Self-quarantine: Contacts are encouraged to stay home, monitor their health and maintain social distance (at least 6 feet) from others (including other members of their household) until 14 days after their last possible exposure in order to prevent the continued spread and keep others safe. Health officials may share available services to help them during the self-quarantine period. 

Identifying Contacts

For COVID-19, a close contact is anyone who has come within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before the person began feeling sick until the time the patient was isolated. This includes anyone who is wearing a mask because, even though the cloth covering can help prevent the spread, they are not 100% effective. This may also include anyone who has been around someone identified as a close contact of an infected person. 

Keeping Things Private

Many people who are contacted about participating in contact tracing are rightfully concerned about privacy. It is important to understand that public health officials are just as concerned, and every discussion with them will be kept confidential. Contact tracing does not require the sick person’s identity to be disclosed. All personal and medical information will be kept private and only shared with those who need to know, like your healthcare provider.

What You Should Do

If a public health staff member calls, it is important for you to be aware and able to recall  anyone you came in close contact with and be prepared to begin home isolation if they suspect you could be infected.  “If you think you may be a contact, it is important for you to speak with your physician and ask to be tested,” Dr. Rizzo explained. “You may want to also consider self-isolating until you have been ruled out as an infected individual—which could take two weeks.” In the interim, health officials suggest you take your temperature twice a day, watch for symptoms of COVID-19, and notify your doctors if you develop symptoms. 

It is up to each and every one of us to help stop the spread. Maintaining social distance from others not only reduces your risk of transmitting the disease, it also lessens your likelihood of two weeks in home isolation due to a potential risk of exposure.

To learn more about contact tracing, visit the CDC website.

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