Virus Detectives: How Contact Tracers Track COVID-19

Tracking people's location and coronavirus outbreak: crowd of people keeping a safe distance and being located by a tracker app

In just a few short months, our collective sense of normalcy has been upended due to the coronavirus. Our world is different – stores, restaurants and businesses have suspended operations; face coverings are becoming part of our regular dress code when in public.

New words have entered our regular vocabulary: social distancing, self-quarantine, contact tracing.

We know that social distancing and self-quarantine have meant time away from family and friends, but both have proven to be key in keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy in a collective effort to slow the spread of the virus.

Contact tracing is a disease control measure that allows public health officials to identify patients with suspected or confirmed cases of the virus, and by working with those patients, identify others who may have been exposed. This helps public health officials identify where virus may spread next and proactively act to contain it.

Government officials have said contact tracing is key to returning to any semblance of pre-COVID-19 normalcy.  Contact tracing is not new, in fact it has been used successfully in many other countries and public health crises; however, it may be unfamiliar to you. Below are some frequently asked questions to help you better understand contact tracing and what it may mean to you.

What is contact tracing?

Think of it as a concerted detective effort to not only identify someone infected, but who that infected person may have been in close contact with and unwittingly spread the virus. Those contacts may not only have been exposed and can fall ill themselves, but some may not exhibit any symptoms and may simply be carriers of the virus, allowing it to continue to spread unchecked.

Once a patient with a suspected or confirmed case of the virus is identified, they are asked to share the name and contact information of anyone they have recently been physically near. Those people are then called by a trained contact tracer to inform them they may have been exposed to the virus.

How does the contact tracing program work?

A contact tracer’s first phone call is made to the patient, to help identify anyone they have been within six feet of during the two days prior to developing symptoms or your diagnosis. The contact tracer will ask for their phone numbers. Contact tracers are specially trained in patient confidentiality, medical terminology, interpersonal skills, cultural sensitivity, and basic crisis counseling and community resources.

How will a contact tracer notify me if have been exposed?

You will be contacted by phone. Massachusetts has collaborated with Partners in Health to create the COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative. A member of the COVID Community Team will reach out via phone or text to alert you of your potential exposure.

I don’t accept phone calls or texts that I suspect are spam or robocalls. How will I know a contact tracer is trying to reach me?

A call from the COVID Community Team will start with the numbers 833 or 857 and will display on a caller ID screen as MA COVID Team. The COVID Community Team will only make calls between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

What should you do if contacted by contact tracer?

Do not be afraid to answer the phone! If you are contacted and informed that you may have been exposed to the virus, you are encouraged to stay home and maintain social distancing from others until 14 days from your last exposure.  You will be asked to check your temperature twice a day, to watch for signs of the virus, such as a fever, cough or shortness of breath. If symptoms do develop, contact public health staff immediately to be evaluated and assessed for medical care.

If I test positive for COVID-19, I don’t want to share that information publicly. How will my privacy be protected?

Patient confidentiality is vitally important and honored, even during this public health crisis. Tracers will only inform your close contacts that they may have been exposed to a patient with the infection, but the patient’s identity will not be revealed.

 

This blog post was compiled from information from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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