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How is Contact Tracing Used in the Fight Against COVID-19?

Public health experts say testing, tracing, and isolating are keys to stopping the spread of the coronavirus disease.

Contact tracing is the ultimate public health detective work: Identify and trace anyone exposed to an infectious disease and take steps to limit the spread of infection.

As government officials, healthcare workers, and public health professionals work to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the World Health Organization (WHO) says contact tracing is a critical piece of the public health protocol needed to stem the pandemic.

How is Contact Tracing Used in the Fight Against COVID-19?

“The same public health measures we have been advocating since the beginning of the pandemic must remain the backbone of the response in all countries,” said WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Find every case, isolate every case, test every case, care for every case, trace and quarantine every contact, and educate, engage, and empower your people.”1

Contact tracing was successfully used to help contain Ebola outbreaks in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.2 And South Korea, a nation of almost 52 million people, deployed the technique during the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak and now, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts say South Korea’s quick response to the disease outbreak, including its contact tracing efforts, helped flatten the curve and reduce the death toll.3

In South Korea, contact tracers use traditional methods, like patient interviews and reviewing medical records, to locate people exposed to the coronavirus. They also examine cellphone GPS records, credit card transactions, and closed-circuit television,4 techniques that raise privacy concerns in other parts of the world. A number of countries also are using or developing mobile apps to help community health workers track people who may have been in contact with someone who has the coronavirus disease.

How Does Contact Tracing Work?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says any COVID-19 tracking efforts should adhere to these core principles:5

  • Contact tracing is part of the process of supporting patients with suspected or confirmed infection.
  • In contact tracing, public health staff work with a patient to help them recall everyone with whom they have had close contact during the timeframe while they may have been infectious.
  • Public health staff then warn these exposed individuals (contacts) of their potential exposure as rapidly and sensitively as possible.
  • To protect patient privacy, contacts are only informed that they may have been exposed to a patient with the infection. They are not told the identity of the patient who may have exposed them. 
  • Contacts are provided with education, information, and support to understand their risk, what they should do to separate themselves from others who are not exposed, monitor themselves for illness, and the possibility that they could spread the infection to others even if they themselves do not feel ill.
  • Contacts are encouraged to stay home and maintain social distance from others (at least 6 feet) until 14 days after their last exposure, in case they also become ill. They should monitor themselves by checking their temperature twice daily and watching for cough or shortness of breath. To the extent possible, public health staff should check in with contacts to make sure they are self-monitoring and have not developed symptoms. Contacts who develop symptoms should promptly isolate themselves and notify public health staff. They should be promptly evaluated for infection and for the need for medical care.  

Next Public Health Steps in the U.S.

To scale up tracing efforts, a Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security report estimates the U.S. will need 100,000 additional contact tracers,4 also known as disease investigation specialists (DIS). In early April, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials said there were 2,200 DIS at work in the U.S.6

“This workforce could be strategically deployed to areas of greatest need and managed through state and local public health agencies that are on the front lines of the COVID-19 response,” the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security report said. “To do this, we also estimate that Congress will need to appropriate approximately $3.6 billion in emergency funding to state and territorial health departments.”4

All eyes will be on New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut as the tri-state area builds and implements a large-scale COVID-19 contact tracing program that may serve as a model for the United States and beyond. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is helping to fund and lead the effort, working in concert with New York governor Andrew Cuomo, the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, and a phalanx of public health stakeholders.7

“One of the most critical pieces of getting to a new normal is to ramp up testing, but states have a second big task—to put together an army of people to trace each person who tested positive, find out who they contacted, and then isolate those people,” Cuomo said. “This partnership with Mike Bloomberg to create an unprecedented, nation-leading contact tracing program will do just that and serve as a model for the rest of the nation.”7

Improving Public Health

If you’re ready to join the fight to end the coronavirus pandemic and prevent future outbreaks, now may be your time to earn a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. Community health workers are in demand8 and an online MPH program can prepare you for a public health career that fuels your passion.

Public health professionals work as disease investigators, research analysts, epidemiologists, and community educators. They develop public health policy, work in occupational health and safety, and coordinate emergency preparedness efforts. And now, they are working to eradicate COVID-19, helping to preserve global health.

Walden University’s master of public health online degree program can help prepare you to make an immediate impact in your chosen field, and in your community. Walden, an innovative leader in distance education, offers working professionals an innovative online environment and curriculum that includes case studies from the most current public health issues. And Walden’s MPH program has Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accreditation, meaning it has met accepted public health profession standards in practice, research, and service.

These extraordinary times call for public health professionals who are ready to lead through this global health crisis. An MPH can prepare you to take the lead and make a difference, wherever your career interests may take you.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering public health degree programs including the Master of Public Health (MPH). Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

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Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,