Contact Tracers Join The COVID-19 Fight
A new group of professionals are joining the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. They’re called contact tracers.
“We used to have people who did this job of contact tracing for different diseases (like) measles, polio (and) tuberculosis,” said Dr. Timothy Hoff, a professor of Management, Health Care Systems and Health Policy in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business and School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University, in Boston. "This was part of what your local public health professional did back in the day and it’s obviously coming around back into importance again.”
Contact tracing is exactly what it sounds like. When someone tests positive for the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus, investigators attempt to find anyone the patient in question had contact with. This not only helps officials track the pandemic but also informs people that they may need medical attention.
“There’s no doubt (that) what they call “shoe leather epidemiology” which is people finding out from people who have the disease who they’ve been in contact with, and then in the old days going and knocking on the doors of those people to figure out who they’ve been in contact with and to let them know that they’ve been exposed to whatever illness is being (investigated). It’s interesting that it’s come back around again and it’s something that at least several states like California, Massachusetts and New York are going to rely heavily on as they reopen their states.”
Dr. Hoff says contact tracers were used extensively at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. Since then, HIPPA and other privacy laws have made their job a bit more complicated.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to violate people’s privacy. So, for instance I think in Massachusetts the way they have it set up is the contact tracer connects with the person who has been diagnosed with COVID (19), gets their immediate contacts, who they’ve been in contact with, then they pass that information on to another contact tracer who doesn’t get the name of the person who gave that information, and then that second contact tracer goes and connects (with) and contacts the individuals that have been exposed. That’s not perfect, but it’s like a two-step process so the people ultimately get contacted and (informed) that they might have been exposed, but they don’t ever know who gave them their name, and the person who is contact tracing in that situation also doesn’t know the person’s name.”
And although Hoff called contact tracing “shoe leather epidemiology," the job is now mostly done at home with a phone and a good internet connection. He also believes that the job requires a certain skill set that can’t be taught in a training session.
“Do you need a college degree? No. Do you need a really good personality, skills like empathy, listening, being able to ask good questions, being able to gain people’s trust? Yes. I mean those are all required elements of becoming a good contact tracer. Because remember what these people are being paid to do. They’ve got to get information from people who have been diagnosed with the illness and people might be reluctant to give that information, people might be embarrassed to give that information, people might feel that it’s an invasion of their privacy. So I think more of the skill sets are thing that you don’t ordinarily learn in a school. They are things that are unique to someone’s personality and someone’s own make-up.”
Dr. Hoff says that while bigger cities and coronavirus hot spots are currently trying to quickly build a roster of contact tracers, eventually those positions will be needed nationwide, especially if there is a second wave of the disease later in the year.