Story at a glance
- Contact tracers talk to patients to find out who they’ve been in touch with recently.
- They call the contacts and give them any information they may need.
- Many states are hiring contact tracers to handle the need from the coronavirus pandemic.
Contact tracing is what it sounds like. You trace all of the contacts that someone has been in touch with over a certain period of time. Although it sounds simple, it’s not easy. Contact tracing, along with testing, is an incredibly crucial part of the strategy for combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is contact tracing?
The goal of contact tracing is to stop the chain of transmission. The main point is to inform people who have been exposed to an infectious disease that they have been exposed and let them know what they can do to take care of themselves and prevent infecting anyone else.
When someone becomes a confirmed case during an infectious disease epidemic, they are asked who else they came into contact with. Those contacts may be at risk of developing the disease. It is the job of the contact tracer to find out who those people are, get in touch with them and let them know what their next steps should be.
When talking to the patient, they may have to ask a lot of questions to try to get as much information as possible. The contact tracer may need to find out all the different places the patient went to do their grocery shopping. Or all the friends’ homes they have visited, or all the public spaces they’ve spent time in. It may be difficult to recall everything from the past two weeks, but it’s the job of the contact tracer to try to get as many details as possible.
The contact tracer will typically call up all the patient’s contacts and then also monitor the health condition of those contacts. They give the contacts information and support. All the while, the contact tracer needs to respect the privacy and confidentiality of the patient, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“To protect patient privacy, contacts are only informed that they may have been exposed to a patient with the infection,” the CDC says. “They are not told the identity of the patient who may have exposed them.”
What makes this difficult
The contact tracer needs to have good phone skills to do this job. They have to gain the trust of the people they are cold calling and get them to take the news seriously. They also need to have an adequate understanding of the public health recommendations and be able to answer any questions that may come up in conversation.
People also may not answer their phones if an unknown number shows up. And there are people who, no matter what they are told, will not feel the need to quarantine for two weeks. Some essential workers may feel that they cannot afford to quarantine themselves if they feel healthy because they need the income.
There are some efforts to develop a technological contact tracing solution to notify people when they’ve been in contact with a confirmed case. None will likely be approved to be implemented in the near future because of the time it takes to develop the technology and because of the ethical concerns for equity and access.
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States that are recruiting
Besides the need to train people to talk to contacts over the phone, having enough contact tracers is also key to any public health operation. During normal times, some experts think that health care systems should have 15 contact tracers per 100,000 people. In crisis times, that doubles to 30. To fill out the needs due to the coronavirus pandemic, many states are hiring, but some are not, according to NPR.
California: The governor is aiming to train 10,000 people to do contact tracing.
Colorado is recruiting.
Louisiana: The state is looking to hire 700 people, according to NPR.
Massachusetts: Partners in Health is hiring.
New York: The Fund for Public Health in NYC is recruiting contact tracers for New York. The state is looking to have between 6,400 and 17,000 and the city itself will hire 1,000 workers for these positions.
North Carolina: Community Care of North Carolina has teamed up with the state government to hire contact tracers.
North Dakota: The state is hiring 250 contact tracers, according to NPR.
Texas: The state is looking to hire 2,850 contact tracers. This is one job advertisement for Harris County Public Health.
Utah went from 31 to more than 130 staffers.
CONTRACE is a larger national effort based in Washington, D.C., that is accepting inquiries to be contact tracers. They identify and pre-screen individuals who apply and provide this information to other organizations that are recruiting.
For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.
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