When a disease or virus can be transmitted from one person to another—such as with COVID-19 or HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)—stopping the spread can potentially save lives. This is where a contact tracer comes in. But what does a contact tracer do? Though the exact answer to this question varies from one public health agency to the next, there are a few common tasks assigned to those working in the contact tracing role.
Identifies People Potentially Exposed
One of the first steps in the contact tracing process is identifying who may have been exposed to the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stresses that “time is of the essence” in this step for limiting the spread in the community.
Persons potentially exposed may include family members, friends, co-workers, and any others the person may have had close contact with. Though, this can change depending on the individual virus and how it is usually transmitted.
Notifies People of Potential Exposure
Once a person has been identified, the contact tracer notifies them that they’ve potentially been exposed to the disease or virus. This keeps the person from unknowingly spreading the infection to others.
It is during this notification that all of the other tasks are able to be performed, such as providing education about the disease, collecting information, and connecting them to local resources.
Provides Disease Education
Part of the notification process involves sharing information about the disease. This data varies based on the virus itself but generally includes talking about:
- who is at greater risk of developing the disease or having a more severe case of the disease;
- what signs and symptoms the person should look for that could signal that they have an active infection; and
- how to stop the transmission of the disease to others.
This last point is discussed to help reduce the rate of the spread. This is important from a public health perspective because if too many people become infected at one time, there may not be enough available hospital space. A surge on the healthcare system can also mean less access to treatment, possibly resulting in higher death rates.
Another task commonly assigned to a contact tracer is the collection of information. One of the most important pieces of information to be collected is who that person may have potentially infected so they can be warned as well.
Information collected can also be used to learn more about the disease. How it is transmitted, how long it takes for the infection to appear, and other valuable information can be learned simply by asking these questions to people who have it.
Information provided by contacts may also assist in the development of a viable treatment. For instance, researchers may be able to use data collected to learn more about what factors do or do not impact the disease. It can also provide insight into trends that may exist in transmission or infection from person to person.
Suggests Actions to Reduce the Infection to Others
Stopping the spread of a virus reduces the number of people who get sick. That’s why it is so important for those potentially infected to understand exactly what actions they can take to keep transmission to a minimum. A contact tracer explains what those actions are.
For example, with COVID-19, the CDC recommends that infected or potentially infected individuals stay at least six feet away from others for a minimum of 14 days from exposure. This is referred to as self-isolating. It is also suggested that these individuals continue to monitor their health during that time by watching for common signs and symptoms of COVID-19, such as cough, shortness of breath, and a fever.
Connects Them with Community Resources
Because limiting contact with others is needed to stop the spread of an infectious virus, people may need help with certain day-to-day activities. This may include obtaining any necessary prescription medications or arranging for childcare for their children.
Contact tracers help identify the resources the person needs, making connections with these resources if it is necessary. This helps to assist the person in following through with staying isolated from others without jeopardizing their own health and wellness or the health and wellness of their families.
Some infectious conditions take many days to show up after entering a person’s body. This is known as the incubation period.
For example, the incubation period for COVID-19 can extend to 14 days. So, if you are a contact tracer and you talk to the person on day number four, they may feel okay but develop symptoms a few days later.
Conducting follow-up confirms that the original data collected is still correct. It also provides the contact tracer the opportunity to assist the person should their health status change after the original contact.
Protects Their Confidentiality
Providing private information such as who you have been around and what your medical status is can be extremely uncomfortable. Especially if you don’t know the person you’re giving it to. This can make it difficult to collect the data necessary when performing duties as a contact tracer.
Ensuring people that the information they provide will be protected as much as possible can get them to begin to open up. The Department of Health & Human Services has issued a number of directives on this topic, outlining how much protection the person has while still finding a balance with public health.
The Importance of “Soft Skills” for Contact Tracers
As you can imagine, being notified that you may have been exposed to a potentially deadly virus can be especially alarming. Even more so if you are in a high-risk group. When the contact tracer has a specific set of soft skills, it can help ease the news.
“Soft skills” are non-technical, interpersonal skills or qualities that can help you perform your job at a higher level. With contact tracing, these types of skills help tracers collect and dispel much-needed information without causing contacts undue stress or alarm.
Soft skills beneficial to a contact tracer include:
- having empathy for the contact as learning that they may have been exposed to a disease can create increased feelings of anxiety and concern
- being a good communicator so the information you provide is delivered in a way that the contact understands; also ensuring that you receive the information that they provide correctly
- creating a level of trust so the contact feels comfortable sharing the data you’re tasked with collecting
This is what sets Ultimate Medical Academy’s Contact Tracing course apart. In our course, we focus heavily on the soft skills that can help make you more successful in your contact tracing efforts.
We also discuss epidemiology, day-to-day tasks of contact tracers, and even how to interview for a contact tracing job. But we realize that a majority of your time will be spent talking with contacts, and we want to help you make that time as productive as it can be. Enroll today or contact UMA to learn more about this or any of our other healthcare courses.
The Contract Tracing module is not included within Ultimate Medical Academy’s grant of accreditation from the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).