In February 2020, the coronavirus disease hit the United States. Social distancing, isolation, and quarantine have become familiar terms in the past few months. But what about contact tracing?
Stay in Place, which is essentially a quarantine, is a safety precaution taken to keep those potentially exposed to the virus away from others until they are sure they are not infected. This helps prevent the spread of disease because people can be infected without showing symptoms, or asymptomatic. But how do people know if they’ve been exposed? This is where contact tracing comes in.
Contact tracing has been around for decades. It is one tactic used by health organizations to stop the spread of diseases. Historically it’s been used for smallpox and tuberculosis. More commonly it’s used to stop the spread of HIV and STDs. Recently, this process is being used to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease.
However, it only works if you answer your phone….
What is Contact Tracing and How Does It Work?
When a person is tested for a disease, a contact tracer might call him or her with the results of the test. If that person tests positive, contact tracers must call all people who were in direct contact with the patient. Those tested might expect a call from an unknown number, but their associates probably won’t.
The purpose of contact tracing is to slow the spread of disease by alerting those exposed so they can quarantine and take proper precautions. Unfortunately, the best way for health care workers to get in contact with those exposed is to call them.
These calls can include
- information regarding test results
- sources of possible exposure
- questions regarding where you’ve been and who you’ve had direct contact with
- instructions for protecting yourself and others
- resources available in the instances of quarantine and isolation
Instructions to quarantine and isolate come with a number of concerns besides physical health. Many people worry about keeping their jobs, distancing themselves from family, and accessing and affording basic necessities. Fortunately, contact tracers are also armed with resources that provide information regarding housing, financial aid, food, supplies, and medicine.
Most of us have learned from experience that unknown numbers are usually no good. They’re easy to ignore if we don’t know where they’re coming from. During a pandemic, however, you may want to reconsider.
Below we’ll share some tips to help keep you safe from those naughty unknown callers while keeping yourself open to health updates.
Who Are Contact Tracers?
During World War I, America saw a spike in venereal disease among soldiers. Campaigns were started to openly provide information to men and women regarding STD symptoms and prevention. By the 1930s, however, approximately 1 in every 10 Americans suffered from syphilis.
To combat the outbreak, a group of carefully selected and highly trained public health advisors (P.H.A.s) were hired by the Public Health Service to investigate cases of venereal diseases and possible points of contact.
These P.H.A.s had to have a college degree and a variety of past work experiences and backgrounds. The specific hiring criteria were based on the investigators’ need to wear many hats: psychiatrist, detective, problem-solver, etc. Most importantly, they had to know how to talk to all kinds of people and get them to open up.
This team got to work in 1948. By 1950, syphilis cases were at an all-time low. These original contact tracers were very good at their jobs and the attempt to slow the spread of venereal disease was a success. Today, contact tracers are people just like you trying similarly to protect the health of their communities.
For contact tracing to work, thousands of people must be hired to make calls all over the country. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) and National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD) launched a three-hour training course that earned huge interest in the past month.
Through the free, online training course—Making Contact: A Training for COVID-19 Contact Tracers—ASTHO and NCSD have been able to train over 10,000 people across the country. Organizations in every state have also used the training program to increase the number of contact tracers in their centers.
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has also developed a course to help train contact tracers. It’s a free, six-hour, online course open to anyone. Taking and passing the course is required for any contact tracer hired by the state of New York.
These courses are designed to train everyone, no matter their professional background. Contact tracers do not need to have prior knowledge of the medical profession, disease control, or general public health. Once trained, contact tracers must adapt to specific local and state needs.
Core Training Areas
- Knowledge of COVID-19 including what the symptoms look like and how the disease is transmitted
- Locating infected persons and their contacts
- Communicating with infected persons and their contacts
- Monitoring infected persons and their contacts
These calls can be very upsetting. Contact tracers are trained to be able to handle panicked individuals as well as defensive ones. They have to be able to empathize with the contact and de-escalate difficult situations.
Contact tracers are typically local health officials, but with the rapid spread of COVID-19, tracers are also now employed by private companies and nonprofit organizations to keep up with the number of cases.
Unfortunately, calls originating from these numbers can increase skepticism in contacts. Unknown numbers often suggest robocallers which are frequently and easily ignored. However, ignoring these calls can be harmful.
How Can I Tell a Contact Tracer from a Scammer?
When so many unknown callers turn out to be scammers out to get personal information, it’s definitely smart to ignore as many as possible. However, some unknown callers do have important information to communicate.
First of all, contact tracers will identify themselves and the organization they’re associated with. This is the first clue that you probably shouldn’t hang up on the caller. Of course, if you are still suspicious, you should simply call them back or reach out to your local health center directly.
Second, contact tracers will try to identify you to make sure they have reached the right person and avoid disclosing personal health information to the wrong person.
To verify your identity, a contact tracer will ask you to verify your name, date of birth, and address, but they will never ask for your Social Security Number or any financial information. Alternatively, a scammer might try to trick you into providing a social security number or payment information.
When a stranger calls and asks you to confirm personal details, it might raise an alarm or red flag and cause you to become defensive. However, contact tracers will never ask for any sensitive or highly personal information.
If you’ve been tested or exposed to Covid-19, don’t be surprised if the contact tracer asks for the names of people you’ve been around as well as places you’ve been.
If you can be cooperative you’ll realize that the contact tracer is trying to protect your friends and family in case you’ve been exposed. It’s necessary to be able to confirm your identity using information from public records and not your sensitive information to keep personal health information between them and you. For the health of your community, try your best to remember places you’ve been and people you’ve interacted with.
What if I Don’t Know Who Was Exposed?
Part of a contact tracer’s interview will include questions regarding places you’ve been and people you’ve been around. As Stay Home orders are lifted and businesses reopen, this might be difficult to answer.
In a week, you might get gas, go shopping, go out for lunch, and maybe even attend a party. On top of that, you probably don’t know the phone numbers of businesses you visited or all of the guests at the party. In these cases, extra research is necessary, and any information you do have will help.
For example, you might not have the phone number of the host of the party, but you have the address. Or maybe you had lunch with some colleagues, but you don’t have their personal numbers, just email addresses. Resources like Searchbug’s data append tool fills in the blanks.
A data append tool attaches (or appends) information. You can find names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. It’s a great way to find people when you don’t have much to go on. You can also use a reverse address lookup to find names and phone numbers associated with addresses.
Other Contact Tracing Technology
Health officials recognize the difficulty in reaching the public through phone calls. For this reason, they’ve also adopted text messaging. Text messages can be less invasive, less intimidating, and less labor-intensive. It’s quicker and easier for contact tracers to send a text message, and more people are likely to receive the message and act on it.
These messages might contain a brief reason for the outreach, something along the lines of, “you might have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.” These messages can also alert individuals to expect a call from a specific number.
Unfortunately, there are scam texters out there as well. The difference between the two is that scammers will include links in their messages. Do not click on links from unknown text sources.
Clicking on links can allow scammers to download software onto your device that gives them access to personal and sometimes financial information. Legitimate text messages from contact tracers will never include links.
Text messages are also used by contact tracers in the follow-up process to monitor those who have been instructed to quarantine. They can include resources, tips, and reminders to make sure quarantined persons are maintaining healthy routines and have their basic needs met.
Digital Contact Tracing
Apps are also being developed to aid in digital contact tracing. These tools help alleviate the workload on contact tracers by automating tasks, collecting data from self-reporters, and using location data to analyze potential opportunities for exposure to and spread of the disease.
Apple and Google, for example, have banded together to create an app that records when two people with the same app are in close proximity to each other. This way, when someone tests positive and self-reports in the app, everyone who connected to that person’s phone is notified.
None of these technologies—phone call, text, or app—will stop the spread of the disease on its own. Successful contact tracing, digital or otherwise, relies heavily on the cooperation and participation of the public. It will take a combination of these methods to really make a dent. The point is to be able to reach people where they are in a way they are comfortable with.
Does Contact Tracing Honor Privacy Laws?
United States health and government officials are not forgetting about personal privacy concerns. They work within the bounds of privacy regulations and cannot force anyone to answer calls or quarantine. Again, their purpose is to raise awareness to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Contact tracers in the United States get phone numbers from patients tested for the disease and cooperate with local, state, and federal governments to establish data-sharing agreements. Contact tracers will never reveal the name of the infected person to protect his or her personal health information.
On calls, contact tracers must exercise discretion. They can only speak with the patient or the contact whom they believe was exposed or persons the contact has authorized to listen in on the call. This is part of their training and ensures the privacy of the contact and his or her health information.
Additionally, many text message campaigns are opt-in only. A contact tracer might ask at the end of a call if you’d like to enroll in a text message program to receive future updates and follow-ups.
Even digital contact tracing tools exercise privacy boundaries. The Apple-Google app mentioned above does not record users’ locations. Instead, apps are registered using Bluetooth antennas in smartphones. Furthermore, these apps rely almost entirely on self-reporting. There is no “big brother” that’s getting your information.
This is an unprecedented time. While procedures and technologies are adapting to the current health situation, officials have not neglected personal privacy in their efforts to maintain public health.
Contact tracing is not a new concept. It has successfully worked to stop the spread of diseases in the past. It can work again, but only if the public is aware and cooperative.
Technology is a great resource. It does come with its limitations, and there are those who take advantage of the system, but as long as you know what to look for and what to avoid, you can protect your personal information as well as your health.
If you’re a contact tracer, consider using tools like Searchbug’s data append tool to aid in your investigation. Find names and phone numbers associated with addresses in batches or use the reverse address lookup tool.
Above all, the next time that phone rings think twice before ignoring it. At least for now.