The coronavirus pandemic now known as COVID-19 has made “contact tracing” a fairly common term. But what does it mean to conduct contact tracing? Secondarily, when is contact tracing used and what does the process look like? If you have questions such as these, this article is for you.
What Contact Tracing Entails
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that the purpose behind contact tracing is to “interrupt disease transmission.” This is typically accomplished by performing four basic tasks:
- Interviewing people who are confirmed to have a specific contagious disease or condition
- Identifying those who may have come in contact with the infected person
- Educating those potentially affected about the condition and explaining how to limit transmission, while also requesting that they take certain measures to help protect others should they be infected
- Performing follow-up with the potentially affected person to learn whether they developed the disease and/or to connect them with any additional services they might need during treatment or recovery
If it is a new disease or virus, such as with COVID-19, information obtained by talking with both types of people—those who have become infected and those that have had contact with that person—can provide insight as to how a virus or disease spreads from one person to another.
Contact tracing can also potentially provide information about when the disease may spread more easily, how long it takes symptoms to appear, what those symptoms are, and more. This data can become important when developing diagnostic and treatment methods.
When & How Contact Tracing Is Used
The CDC reports that contact tracing is utilized by health departments. This can include health departments at all levels of government, from local to state to federal.
The ultimate goal of contact tracing is to prevent the unnecessary spread of infectious disease. This highlights why this methodology is used only when a contagious virus like COVID-19 is present. Although contact tracing is a relatively new term to most of us, it has been used several times in the past to help slow the spread of other contagious health conditions.
HIV is one to consider. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, which is the virus that causes AIDS. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services shares that HIV is most commonly spread through sexual contact and when sharing drug paraphernalia used during injection. According to a 2003 study published in Mathematical Biosciences, research showed that various models of contact tracing had a “large effect in slowing the epidemic” of this disease.
Contact tracing was also used during the Ebola epidemic during 2014 and 2015. In this instance, a 2018 study called contact tracing “a critical intervention” in Liberia, adding that it was also one of the “largest contact tracing efforts during an epidemic in history.”
The Contact Tracing Process
To better understand what contact tracing looks like in the real world, consider the CDC’s Contact Tracing Workflow designed specifically for COVID-19.
- Step 1: Interview Infected Person. In this first step, a person who has been confirmed positive with the disease or virus is interviewed to identify people they may have been in contact with that they could have potentially infected. This includes family members and friends they’ve seen recently, as well as co-workers, colleagues, healthcare practitioners, and anyone else meeting the contagion criteria for that specific disease. For example, in the Ebola study, a contact was defined as anyone who slept or ate in the same household; had direct physical contact with the infected person; touched the infected person’s bodily fluids, clothes, or other objects; or attended an infected person’s funeral. Babies breastfeeding from infected mothers were considered Ebola contacts as well.
- Step 2: Contact is Notified. Once the infected person has identified someone else that they may have potentially infected, the next step is to make contact with that second person. In some cases, the infected person may be able to provide the potential contact’s phone number, address, or some other way to get in touch with them. If not, it is up to the contact tracer to locate this data and find the person. During this conversation, the contact is educated about the disease or condition and is asked to take steps to reduce the spread. In the case of COVID-19 specifically, this involves asking them to self-quarantine for 14 days. Different requests may be made with other conditions depending on what is known about their transmission.
- Step 3: Connect Contact with Support Services. If the contacted person requires additional services within the community, the contact tracer refers them to those resources. An example of this is working with the contact to ensure that they have access to the healthcare they need while working to slow disease transmission. This could include making sure they have enough prescription medications on hand while social isolating or, if they don’t have a primary care physician, talking about their healthcare options should they require medical treatment.
- Step 4: Follow Up with Contact. The goal of this final step is to monitor the contact to learn whether they ever contracted the infectious condition. It is also to refer the contact to the appropriate medical care should it become necessary.
Because contact tracing involves infectious diseases, time may be of the essence. The more people the infected person comes in contact with, especially if they are asymptomatic—which means that they aren’t showing any real signs of having the disease—the more that disease can potentially spread.
Ready to Join the Fight?
Ultimate Medical Academy offers a non-credit Contact Tracing course at no cost that follows CDC guidelines and contains interactive modules.
In these modules, you will learn about the history/origin of contact tracing; key terms and purpose of public health; epidemiology, COVID-19 symptoms, exposure precaution, spread reduction; case reporting, information collecting, real-life scenarios; and communication, empathy, data entry and professionalism.
With the knowledge gained in this course, you can play a role in slowing the transmission of the virus. Contact UMA to learn more!
The Contract Tracing module is not included within Ultimate Medical Academy’s grant of accreditation from the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).