Rave blog Post

What is Contact Tracing?

As communities wonder when life will start to feel more ‘normal’ again, state and local governments and public health agencies are working diligently to tackle the COVID-19 crisis to reduce the number of cases and deaths across the United States. One way they are doing so is by scaling up testing for coronavirus and contact tracing to discover where the virus has been and who may have come in contact with the infection.

What is Contact Tracing and Why is it Critical for Opening Up Communities Again?

The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that when people have had close contact with somebody who is infected with a virus, such as COVID-19, they are at a higher risk of becoming infected themselves and of potentially infecting others. By closely watching these contacts after exposure to an infected person, public health agencies can help them get the treatment they need and prevent further transmission.

This monitoring process is known as contact tracing and is broken down into 3 basic steps by WHO:

  • Contact Identification: Once somebody is infected, contacts are identified by asking about the infected person’s activities as well as the activities and roles of the people around them. According to WHO, contacts can be anyone who has been in contact with an infected person including family members, work colleagues, friends or health care providers.
  • Contact Listing: Everybody who is considered to have had contact with the infected person should be listed as contacts. WHO explains that efforts should be made to identify the listed contacts and inform them of their contact status, what that means, what actions to follow, and the importance of receiving early care if they develop any symptoms of the virus. In the case of the COVID-19 virus, contacts should be isolated or quarantined to prevent a further spread.
  • Contact Follow-Up: Follow-ups should be conducted regularly with all contacts to monitor their symptoms and test if they show any signs of infection.

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Why is Contact Tracing Critical for Opening Up Communities Again? 

Contact tracing will allow communities to open up again as it will help identify the sources spreading COVID-19.

As the pandemic continues and cases have risen across United States, contact tracing is a crucial part of slowing the spread of the virus. The Whitehouse released a report, "Guidelines: Opening Up America Again", which outlines proposed phased approaches to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The phased approach is based on up-to-date data and readiness, mitigates the risk of resurgence, protects the most vulnerable, and is implementable on statewide or county-by-county basis.

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We're currently in Phase I, which means communities are sheltering in place and practicing social distancing when in public in groups under 10. States will only reach the next phase if there is no evidence of a rebound in the virus after a consecutive decrease in cases over a 2 week period. Contact tracing can help with identifying where the virus has been and who may be infected, which will then prevent those who may not show any symptoms from spreading the virus to others. 

Unfortunately, experts claim there may be a second coronavirus outbreak this winter in conjunction with flu season to make for an even more dire health crisis, according to CNN. 

"There's a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through," CDC Director Robert Redfield said, "And when I've said this to others, they kind of put their head back, they don't understand what I mean."

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Public health departments have expanded contact tracing teams in hopes that they will slow the spread of the coronavirus and help states reopen their economies sooner to help combat the skyrocketing unemployment rates, according to MSN News. Teams have been telling those who have come into contact with an infected person to isolate themselves for at minimum 14 days and consult with a doctor.

"The whole point of this process is to make sure that people who have the virus are separated from those who don't," says Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation to NPR. "That includes the original case, who's isolating, and the contacts who might be incubating the disease. If you get them to self-quarantine before they are infectious, then you've essentially stopped the transmission of that disease from that transmission train. If you do that with enough contacts, then you've effectively interrupted community transmission."

In Salt Lake County, Utah, the public health department has increased the number of contact tracing employees from a team of 30 – who would typically trace common communicable diseases, such as chickenpox – to 130. Lee Cherie Booth, a member of the contact tracing team in Salt Lake County, spends 10 hours a day sometimes seven days a week calling people referred by health authorities after the patients test positive for COVID-19, as per MSN News. She works to jog these patients’ memories about where they have been and who they’ve been in contact with as long as two days before their onset of COVID-19 symptoms.

Booth will ask contact tracing questions over the phone including the following:

  • What time did you wake up?
  • What did you do?
  • Who did you see?
  • Did you drive your own car?
  • Did you take public transportation?
  • Did you order a Lyft?
  • When you went to get your car serviced, did you talk to the receptionist?
  • Did you touch anything?

All of these questions are extremely important in tracing possible contacts who may have been infected.

MSN News explains that public health experts say tracking down sick people and those they might have exposed to the virus will be critical in allowing the public to work, shop and gather in groups again without sparking more outbreaks, especially in lieu of a vaccine which may not be widely available for at least a year.

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“The scale at which that is required far supersedes what is available right now at public health departments,” said Emily Toth Martin, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Reaching the Community About Contact Tracing

Some state and local governments have encouraged residents to keep track of where they have been and who they have come into contact with regardless of whether they are infected or not. By doing this, citizens who may come into contact with somebody who has COVID-19 will already have the pertinent details needed by those who are contact tracing, which will make it easier to track down other contacts who have been exposed to the virus.

By using a mass notification system, state and local leaders can effectively share helpful tips on what residents can do to assist in contact tracing efforts. By providing individuals with information on why contact tracing is important, as well as why they should be keeping detailed notes on who they’ve been in contact with and where they have been, officials hope to slow the spread of COVID-19 and move through the phases of reopening communities across the United States.   

Check out what we're doing at Rave to help communities combat COVID-19.

 

SMS opt-in and two-way communication features within a mass notification platform can also be helpful. If an individual is infected, those working as contact tracers can reach out to individuals and encourage them to opt-in to SMS text notifications by providing a keyword and short code. For example, state and local governments could have citizens text the word "COVID" to 11223 to enroll. By opting in, somebody who has been exposed to COVID-19 will then receive relevant text notifications for a specific time period. Amidst the pandemic, this time period may be for at least 2 weeks while the individual is isolated or quarantined.

Once a person is enrolled they can visit a targeted government registration page and provide demographic information, any medical conditions, how long they have been symptomatic, and how long they have been quarantined. Administrators can then send targeted updates via text message and administer follow-ups and check-ins designed to track their progress towards clearance. 

Coupling the use of a mass notification system with public safety profiles, such as Smart911, which allow residents to fill out a profile with critical information such as medical issues or vulnerability to contracting COVID-19, state and local governments can have a comprehensive view of those who are at risk to being infected, who are already infected or in quarantine, as well as a detailed lists of contacts infected individuals have been in contact with. 

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Tara Gibson
Tara Gibson

Tara is a Marketing Coordinator on the Rave Mobile Safety marketing team. She loves writing about all things K-12, State & Local, Higher Ed, Corporate, and Healthcare, and manages the Rave social media channels. When she's not working, she's taking care of her smiley, shoe eating, Instagram-famous fur baby, Enzo!

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