What is contact tracing and will it help slow down the spread of coronavirus?

contact tracing coronavirus
Photo via markus119/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As medical experts and economists work to devise solutions to safely reopen society and to ease social distancing measures, one idea that’s being contemplated is contact tracing. But what is contact tracing?

It refers to the ability to trace and monitor those infected with the coronavirus, which would then prevent further transmission by notifying people when they have come into contact with these infected individuals. 

This monitoring process can be broken down into three basic steps, as outlined by the World Health Organization.

  1. Contact identification: When someone tests positive for the virus, everyone that the infected individual came into contact with since the onset of illness—such as family members, friends, co-workers, or health care providers—must be identified.
  2. Contact listing: Efforts should then be made to track down all those who were exposed to the infected individual and inform them of their status. These contacts will be provided with information about further prevention of the disease by going into quarantine or self-isolation—as well as seeking out medical treatment should they begin to develop symptoms.
  3. Contact follow-up: Until contacts are fully cleared, by either testing or quarantine, regular follow-up should be conducted to monitor for symptoms and test for signs of infection.

For contact tracing to be effective, it will be critical for various regions and territories to expand staffing resources and establish large cadres of contact tracers.

Technology’s role in contact tracing

Adopting the use of digital tools may greatly expand the reach of contact tracers—however, this measure will require society participation, and it also raises some privacy issues.

Google and Apple have already teamed up to incorporate contact tracing apps into both Android and iOS operating systems. These apps, which could reach billions of devices, would ideally notify smartphone users if they’ve been around someone who tested positive for the virus.

The drawbacks, however, is that these apps would require user opt-in permissions, and it would limit participation to, well, smartphone users. Approximately half the world’s population still doesn’t use or have access to smartphones.

The National Health Service (NHS), the publicly-funded healthcare system in the United Kingdom, is currently testing a COVID-19 contact-tracing app that will use short-range Bluetooth signals to log when smartphone owners are near one another. Germany and France are also developing similar Bluetooth-reliant apps that will gauge the proximity between two devices but without logging exact locations to ease privacy concerns.

Sources: WHO, CDC, CNN, BBC

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