As countries around the world have started relaxing restrictions and getting into the rhythm of the new normal, health experts and professionals are calling for a greater investment in contact tracing – which involves identifying and notifying people who have come into close contact with someone who’s tested positive for the virus.

Health officials across the world are not convinced that the current healthcare infrastructure is able to withstand the second wave of COVID-19 infections that have arisen. In the world of public health, contact tracing is one of the best tools for combating the spread of diseases – and it’s far from a new concept. But what exactly is it, and how does it help?

What Is Contact Tracing?

In public health, contact tracing is the process of identifying persons who may have come into close contact with an infected person and further collecting information about these individuals. According to the CDC, a close contact is someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes beginning from 48 hours before illness until the patient is isolated. It starts with a person testing positive for the virus–or even showing symptoms of the disease–and proceeds from there.

Tracking down people who have been exposed to someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19 isn’t just about keeping that person safe. Data suggests that a COVID-19 carrier will infect two to three people, on average, which means it becomes really important to track and compile lists of people who should get tested for possible infection. Results from a study conducted in China showed that contact tracing and individual isolation helped reduce the community spread.

The Process Of Contact Tracing

Wikimedia Source
Process of contact tracing

Many experts claim that contact tracing is essentially detective work. It’s also quite a time-consuming and labour-intensive process but since it’s a tried and tested tool – it’s also the best defense we have against the disease.

The process of contact tracing can be broken down into three broad steps:

-Identification: The individual is identified as having tested positive for the disease (often called the index case). Once the confirmation is substantiated, the individual is interviewed to ask about their activities and movements which can help providers track down the people in question. Depending on the context of the situation, contacts can be anyone: family members, friends, colleagues, and healthcare providers.

-Listing: All persons considered to have contact with the infected individual are listed as contacts. Public health workers reach out to those people to offer counseling, screening, and information on further prevention of the disease. If deemed necessary for disease control, these contacts may even be advised to self-isolate; at home, or in hospital.

-Follow-up: To maintain a continuous line of communication, public health officials also conduct regular follow-ups to monitor for symptoms and signs of infection.

If, for any reason, a contact cannot be individually identified then public notices such as media advisories are issued.

Can Technology Help In Contact Tracing?

Given the sheer breadth of the issue, the use of technology to digitally contact trace is the next logical step. Apple and Google intend to apply advanced technological tools to help track the spread of COVID-19. Their approach involves apps built by public health organizations that make use of Bluetooth and GPS-enabled technology to determine if the individual is at risk of coming into contact with an infected person. These apps would also notify close contacts and health organizations of possible exposure. By using these tools at their disposal, the apps can identify and notify people who have been exposed to the virus without relying primarily on human memory and knowledge. There’s also the benefit of greater efficiency and immediacy, while reducing interpersonal contact and administrative cost.

In fact, digital contact tracing has already been implemented in East Asia, which was hit with the virus earlier than in the U.S and Europe. In Singapore, the TraceTogether app has been promoted by the government as the official contact tracing tool. Mainland China has seen a variety of tracking procedures through services such as WeChat and Alipay which are popular with users in the region. While it is slightly early to draw any conclusions, the trend seems to suggest that technology has improved the response and potentially reduced the spread of the virus.

Contact tracing is an important tool in helping contain COVID-19 but it’s not the only one. Collaborative community measures like social distancing and wearing a mask are still what the majority of the population relies on. The best thing that we can do is not add to the workload of the health officials and heed preventative measures ourselves. If you’re looking to get more information on the latest COVID-19 developments, head over to the TABIIB Blog archives.

I am a writer, covering the sprawling expanse of healthcare, among many other things that I love writing on. I write on healthcare because I want to do my part in informing people about the health industry,

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