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

By Rosunnara Roth
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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 continues to be a global threat, the number of contact tracing jobs and technologies continues to grow. However, you may not even know what the term means. What exactly is contact tracing, and why is it important during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Public health officials have actually used this valuable tactic for many 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, how other countries are using it and where the U.S. stands.

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What Is Contact Tracing?

Public health investigators conduct a series of steps for contact tracing. First, investigators reach out to infected individuals and work with them to identify everyone they have been in close contact with during a certain time. Next, they warn those contacts of possible exposure, urge them to self-quarantine and provide them with resources, such as information on where to get tested and what to do if their symptoms worsen. They 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 have physically interacted with during a specified time. These tactics are crucial during the COVID-19 crisis.

Why Is It Important?

Public health officials often use contact tracing to manage sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis. However, it has been a very valuable tactic for severe outbreaks, including the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009 and the SARS outbreak in 2002. During the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing could help prevent the spread of the virus and reduce the possibility of another wave, allowing people to end quarantine and return to normal life faster.

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

Millions of people have been in quarantine 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 in quarantine, just sick people and their contacts. This will make it safer for people to return to their normal roles in society during public health crises. It also helps public health workers easily and quickly alert those who may be at risk.

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 help 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 be tested and stay home if they came from a COVID-19 hot spot or had been physically near an infected person. Thanks to their 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, school and 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 is 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., but it might be coming sooner than you think. Apple and Google have collaborated to transform people’s phones into COVID-19 tracking devices. However, you need to opt-in for it to work.

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Photo Courtesy: Google

Using Bluetooth technology, the system will track movements and record everyone you come into close contact with each day. If you get infected, the app will send "exposure notifications" to your contacts and advise 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.

Many people are excited about digital contact tracing in the U.S., but a lot are also concerned about risking the privacy of Americans. 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, identifiable information won’t be collected.

However, Google and Apple are only making the API — application programming interface — not the actual app. The two tech giants are actually working with public health agencies to build the app, which has only reached its first phase. 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 (Alabama, North Dakota and South Carolina) and 22 countries are planning to use the Apple-Google API.

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 is 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 the citizens must all do their part for contact tracing to be useful.