What Is Contact Tracing, and Why Is It Important During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

By Rosunnara RothLast Updated Aug 10, 2020 4:05:17 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ/BELGA/AFP/Getty Images

Contact tracing has actually existed for centuries, but you’ve probably been hearing this term pop up more lately. As COVID-19 remains a global threat, the number of contact tracing jobs and technologies continues to grow. But what exactly is contact tracing, and why is it important during the COVID-19 pandemic?

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Public health officials have used this valuable tactic to help handle some aspects of many different disease outbreaks. When it comes to contact tracing that’s powered by technology, each country has a different approach, including the U.S. Let's take a look at what’s involved in contact tracing, its importance, the ways other countries are using it and where the U.S. stands.

What Is Contact Tracing?

Public health investigators conduct a series of steps during the process of contact tracing, which is essentially the process of discovering and contacting anyone who may have come into contact with an infected person. First, investigators reach out to infected individuals and work with them to identify everyone they've been in close contact with during a certain period of time. Next, they warn those contacts of possible exposure, urge them to self-quarantine and provide them with resources, such as information about where to get tested and what to do if their symptoms worsen. Officials are not required to share the infected person's identity.

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Photo Courtesy: @ServeIllinois/Twitter

In a way, contact tracing is like the work of a detective. Sometimes, the tactic involves a business notifying customers that a sick person visited the establishment. Anyone who visited on the same day should follow protocols to self-isolate and call their doctor.

However, contact tracing isn’t always carried out by humans. Digital contact tracing also exists, automating the process and expanding the number of people who can be reached. Tech-powered tracing uses a person’s phone to track who they've physically interacted with during a specified time. These processes have been crucial during the COVID-19 crisis.

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Why Is It Important?

Public health officials often use contact tracing to manage outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis. However, it's been a very valuable tactic for severe and potentially lethal outbreaks, including the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009 and the SARS outbreak of 2002. During the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing is being used to help prevent the spread of the virus and reduce the possibility of additional waves, allowing people to get a clearer answer about possible exposure so they can take proper precautions sooner and help others in their lives avoid infection.

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Photo Courtesy: Paula Bronstein/Stringer Getty Images News/Getty Images

Millions of people have been in quarantine or sheltering in place for months, so it’s easy to see why so many of them have become restless. With comprehensive contact tracing, everyone doesn’t need to be actively quarantining, just sick people and their contacts. This can make it safer for people to return to their normal roles in society during public health crises while still taking other appropriate health precautions, such as practicing social distancing and wearing a face covering. Contact tracing also helps public health workers easily and quickly alert those who may be at risk.

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Some countries have embraced digital contact tracing, showing how powerful this step is in fighting COVID-19. However, contact tracing is only one part of the solution. Once contacts are alerted of possible exposure, they need easy access to testing and assistance in following protocols.

Which Countries Have Successfully Used Digital Contact Tracing?

Tech-powered contact tracing has been used in several countries for months, including Singapore, China, Taiwan and South Korea. Some of these methods are aggressive and mandated by the government, while others simply ask citizens to opt-in to the tracking system. Singapore quickly rolled out TraceTogether, an app that relies on Bluetooth to record people’s movements. It assists public health experts in contact tracing accurately and rapidly. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has publicly encouraged the nation to download and use the app.

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Photo Courtesy: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

In Taiwan, the government took action as early as January. Officials used health data and travel history to alert people to get tested and stay home if they visited a COVID-19 hotspot or had been physically near an infected person. Thanks to its quick response, Taiwan avoided the type of lockdowns that occurred in many parts of Europe and the U.S. People are free to go to work and school and to travel, but those who are in quarantine are tracked using their cell phones and monitored by the police.

China has a different program: the QR health code. People aren’t allowed to enter many public spaces without having their codes scanned on their cellphones. A red health code means the person is infected and must stay home. Yellow indicates the person might have been exposed and green signifies they don’t have the virus. This approach applies to entering restaurants, malls and public transportation and has been enforced by the police.

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Does the U.S. Have a Contact Tracing App?

App-based contact tracing isn’t implemented in the U.S. on a widespread basis, but some areas have opted in to one created by tech giants and some states have their own proprietary apps. Apple and Google have collaborated to transform people’s phones into COVID-19 tracking devices, and this Exposure Notifications feature has been included in recent software updates. However, you need to opt-in for it to work.

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Photo Courtesy: Google

Using Bluetooth technology, the system can track movements and record everyone you come into close contact with each day. If you get infected, the app sends "exposure notifications" to your contacts and advises them to get tested and stay home. The Apple-Google system is designed to work on both iPhone and Android phones and run 24 hours a day.

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Many people are excited about digital contact tracing in the U.S., but a lot are also concerned about risking their privacy. Apple and Google actually addressed that issue by building the system to protect identities by keeping everyone’s data and locations anonymous — even for those who test positive. If you opt in to the app, your identifiable information won’t be collected or sent to people whom you've come into contact with.

However, Google and Apple made the API — a.k.a. the functionality to provide these services via smartphone — not an actual separate app that utilizes the functionality. The two tech giants are actually working with public health agencies to build apps, however. The API was released on May 20 and is now in the hands of public health agencies. It’s up to them to release their own apps based on the software. Some states and countries are planning to use the Apple-Google API.

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Meanwhile, contact tracing jobs have been on the rise. Public health organizations are hiring thousands of contact tracers. In fact, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has been developing an online training program to help put contact tracers to work. California hopes to train 3,000 people a week to get them into the field.

Although digital contact tracing has gained traction, man-powered contact tracing is important too. It takes a village to make it work. The government, the healthcare system and everyday people must all do their parts for contact tracing to be useful.

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