How Does Coronavirus Contact Tracing Actually Work?

It’s important to note that these contacts aren’t just anyone you’ve had casual interactions with, like someone you passed in the grocery store, Watson says. According to the CDC definition, these contacts are people you’ve had “significant contact” with, meaning that you’ve been within six feet of them for more than 15 minutes. Usually these are people like family members, roommates, and coworkers.

The contact tracer will also share information about the virus, the symptoms to look out for, and the procedure to check yourself daily for possible symptoms. They will also gather demographic information about you, your living situation, and any underlying medical conditions you might have. All of this will allow them to make appropriate recommendations for keeping yourself and anyone you live with as safe as possible.

Ideally, all of the initial contact is made immediately after the first person tests positive. But this is not a one-and-done situation. Contact tracers, case investigators, and other public health employees will continue to check in on you while you self-isolate. If you do develop symptoms, these people will give you information about whether or not you need to be tested and at what point you should seek medical care. And, when the time comes, they’ll help you assess when it’s okay to stop self-quarantining.

Also, for the record, all of this can be done via phone calls, text messages, and emails. Records about cases and their potential contacts are also collected and shared with contact tracers electronically, Smart says. If contact tracers are having a hard time reaching someone or there’s reason to get a test sample in person, that can happen in rare cases. But the CDC advises that in-person communication be a last resort.

What does it mean if a contact tracer calls me?

If a contact tracer tells you that you may have been exposed to the virus, that is not a confirmation that you have the infection. But it should put you on alert for any symptoms you might develop, Smart says, and you should follow the instructions the contact tracer gives you to prevent spreading the virus as much as possible.

If you don’t have any symptoms, you’ll be told to self-quarantine for 14 days from your last potential exposure to the virus and to monitor yourself for symptoms during that time, the CDC explains. If you do have symptoms, you’ll be immediately referred for testing and medical care and told to self-isolate.

That’s a lot to take in, which is why contact tracers are trained to be sympathetic, sensitive, active listeners and problem solvers. It’s also why it’s so important for contact tracers to be a diverse set of people who can work directly with members of their own community, Watson says. And, depending on your circumstances, you may need some help to actually make it through those two weeks. “If they have to quarantine for 14 days, it’s public health’s job to enable that and get them the supplies they need to do that,” Watson says.

The major issue that contact tracers run into, though, is concerns about privacy, Smart says. In the event that you’re contacted by a case investigator or contact tracer, it’s understandable that you might not feel super comfortable giving your information to them or with the idea that they already have some information about you or your health. This discomfort is very common, Smart says, “people are hesitant to give information—as they should be.” But it’s important to remember that “your information has been given to them by somebody who knows you and wants to save your life,” Smart says.

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