Before the COVID-19 pandemic, not many people had heard the term “contact tracing,” let alone knew how it related to the virus.
Contact tracing helps slow the spread of the virus by alerting people to possible exposures, helping people exposed to the virus get tested, and asking people with the virus to self-isolate if they have the virus or self-quarantine if they have been exposed.
Public health agencies have used contact tracing as a standard tool in controlling the spread of diseases for decades. Through contact tracing, public health agencies track how a disease is spreading, as well as notify people who may have been exposed.
In the case of the smallpox epidemic, doctors used contact tracing with targeted vaccinations to mitigate the disease.
“Smallpox no longer occurs naturally since it was totally eradicated by a lengthy and painstaking process, which identified all cases and their contacts and ensured that they were all vaccinated,” the World Health Organization’s website reported.
The Colorado State Joint Information Center reported that is has around 400 contact tracers consisting of AmeriCorps service members and volunteers, full-time temporary staff and some Colorado School of Public Health students.
This number does not take in account contact tracers employed by local public health agencies.
However, the quick spread of the virus has caused issues with the contact tracing process across Colorado and the U.S.
“The infection rate quickly outstripped the ability, just in terms of manpower, to do contact tracing,” State Representative and medical doctor Yadira Caraveo said. “I’m sure there is still some going on, particularly with super spreader events. But I think the agencies are really focused on vaccine rollout.”
Justin Beck is founder and CEO of Contakt World, a contact tracing company that assists governments, health agencies, businesses and institutions with connecting to their communities through technology and innovative tools.
Beck founded the company in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began to quickly spread across the U.S. and world.
“I was frustrated with the lack of resources and technology available to public health agencies, so I got together with a team and we started innovating a process,” Beck explained. “Our country, as modern as we are and the way that technology has evolved, but somehow our public health infrastructure is still stuck in the 1970s.”
With many people being asymptomatic with the virus, it makes the contact tracing process difficult, Beck said. Combine that with a disease that moves very fast, and things get even more complicated.
In addition, the lack of a federal response and plan has left state and county agencies to figure out their own ways of mitigating the disease.
“We find that the most effective contact tracing is done by the local experts that know their community,” Beck said. “You can imagine that it’s a very intimate process. You get a phone call and you’re supposed to talk to them about where you’ve been and who you’ve been with.”
People have many different ways to communicate now a days — texts, emails, phone calls — and Beck’s company helps public health agencies utilize all of these options to best reach the largest number of people throughout a community.
Discussions with contact tracers are confidential, and any personal or medical information will be shared with only those who may need to know, such as your health care provider.
While the contact tracer or health department may notify people you have been around, your name and identity will not be shared.
Some of the questions contact tracers may ask a person that has tested positive for the virus or has been exposed to COVID-19 include:
- How you are feeling?
- Where you have been?
- Who you have been around?
Contact tracers will never ask you for money, your Social Security number, any bank account information, salary information or credit card numbers.
If you are asked any of these questions or are asked for other personal information from a contact tracer, this is a sure sign of a scam. You should hang up immediately and contact your local police department.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also has an app that notifies the phone’s owner if they have been exposed to the virus. The app doesn’t record your name or location, and downloading the app doesn’t give the state access to any personal data.
According to the AddYourPhone.com website, each phone that downloads the app is given a random sequence of numbers that changes every few minutes.
Phones with the apps exchange these numbers, and people who test positive for the virus can record their result in the app.
Phones that have exchanged the random numbers will be alerted that they have been exposed to the virus without exchanging any personal or identifying information.
The app is available for both iPhone and Android users and is free to use. The app is designed to use Bluetooth and data minimally and typically has no impact on battery life.
“I have it on my phone and it hasn’t gone off, but I do know people whose phone has,” said statehouse representative for District 50 Mary Young in a recent town hall meeting. “I know early on we just didn’t have the capacity to do it (contact tracing) the way it needed to be done.”
According to Beck, the state of Colorado and many other states have been beyond its contact tracing capacity for some time.
“It’s not realistic that our underfunded public health agencies, when they are already taxed even before the pandemic, are expected to go and do this gargantuan task,” Beck said. “Our company is trying to make sure we can more effectively manage the contact tracing capacity now so that we are never in this position again.”
The use of contact tracing will be imperative to prevent other viruses and diseases from running rampant like the COVID-19 virus.
“If you look back, even before a vaccine was available, there are countries that did a better job of managing COVID-19 and all they did was rely on successful public health practices,” Beck explained. “Which were wearing masks, social distancing and contact tracing. They would find cases, and then support those cases in isolation. We just got so behind the eight ball when we politicized this and didn’t listen to the experts.”
With the new, more contagious strain of the COVID-19 virus having now entered the U.S., contact tracing will be more important now than ever.
“I believe that we are going to see a much more coordinated federal response and standards and integration of all these systems where we link testing, tracing and vaccination, which is so important,” Beck said. “The other thing the government is doing more aggressively now is strain surveillance, where they look at the test of the strain of an individual and genetically sequence it to learn about that mutation.”
However, without linking testing, tracing and vaccination, it will be hard to get a full picture of the status of the pandemic.
“We might understand where a variant might be, like in Colorado or southern California,” Beck said. “But until we really link the data around the test results that that variant is here and have the context of contact tracing next to it, we are never going to really understand are these vaccines working for these new mutations, how fast is this mutation transmit?”
For more information on COVID-19 cases, vaccination and how to protect yourself from the virus, go to covid19.colorado.com.