Contact tracing: Process could prove pivotal in lifting widespread COVID-19 stay-at-home orders

In the 2011 pandemic thriller “Contagion,” Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) travels to meet with colleagues of Beth Emhoff, a woman who contracted a deadly new virus while overseas. Mears asks questions about when the colleagues last saw and spoke with Emhoff, until hearing that one coworker — the person who picked her up from the airport — actually called in sick that day, prompting Mears to rush to meet the ailing man.

The fictional Mears is performing a real process called contact tracing, where people who have been in close contact with someone who has been infected with a virus are monitored for their own health and to prevent viral spread. The process is immensely beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it can help health officials identify potential virus risks and help save lives. 

It’s even something that Apple and Google are trying to tackle by using bluetooth technology, and something that proved beneficial in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in parts of Asia. And it’s also something that can provide guidance on when is the right time to ease rules on social distancing.

In recent press appearances, Dr. Anthony Fauci has also discussed how contact tracing can be a helpful preparation and prevention measure during future waves of COVID-19, as the virus will likely return until a vaccine is made readily available.

According to the World Health Organization, there are three steps that are involved in contact tracing: contact identification, contact listing and contact follow-up.

Contact identification occurs when a person who has been infected with a virus, as well as the people around them, are questioned since that person has become sick. 

Let’s say Jane’s standard day-to-day is riding the bus to work at a small office, playing in a basketball league on some days after work, and then heading back home to spend time with her family. If Jane contracted COVID-19, contact tracing could include speaking to the regular passengers on her bus route, coworkers at her office, the people with whom she usually plays basketball, and her family members at home.

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In the contact listing phase, all of the people who Jane regularly interacts with are considered to be contacts, as they may have been infected by her at some point. People who are designated as contacts are notified as such and should receive early care if symptoms develop, according to WHO. 

For contacts who may have a closer relationship and are in closer quarters with Jane, such as her immediate family members, more stringent health and prevention measures can be undertaken, such as quarantine at home or in a hospital.

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Finally, contact follow-up is when contacts are regularly monitored for symptoms and signs of future infection, according to WHO. It’s possible that one or several of Jane’s basketball teammates will end up becoming infected. It’s also possible that some of the coworkers will become infected too, but not necessarily from Jane. Following-up, though, can help determine if those contacts are at risk themselves and are potential risks to others.

The process is helpful by preventing the spread of the virus, as contacts are made aware of their health status and steps can be taken to limit their exposure to others.