Coronasmarts: What is contact tracing?

May 20, 2020
Imagine trying to keep a slew of marbles together without a container and no light to find them by. Those suckers are going to scatter to every corner of your house. You’ll be finding them for ages.

Epidemiologists face a much more difficult challenge trying to track a virus like COVID-19. Containing the disease means knowing where it’s likely to be, and that requires contact tracing.

How contact tracing works

For any infectious disease, knowing who is likely to spread it enables those people to limit their contact with others so they don’t infect them. That is, if you know you’ve been exposed to an infection, you can stay home and keep it to yourself.

Contact tracing means finding all the marbles. A person who has an infection retraces their steps to figure out who they’ve had contact with, because those people may have been infected, as well. If they’re infected but don’t have any idea, they’ll keep spreading the virus. When contact tracing programs are in place, those people are warned of their exposure and can then take the isolation measures that contain the infection.

Contact tracing in action

The following are essential steps in effective contact tracing:

  1. The infected patient is interviewed by a trained contact tracer to most effectively determine who else may have been infected.
  2. Those who have been exposed are contacted and given instructions for self-isolation.
  3. A professional follows up with those exposed to find the number of resulting infections so that the process can continue and public health officials can analyze data to address emerging hotspots or other trends in infection.

A variety of technology tools are available or in development to make contact tracing easier. One of these is proximity tracing that relies on GPS to recognize and alert users to exposures.

In Indiana, contact tracing is being managed by the Indiana State Department of Health. You can get all the latest information about COVID-19 in the Hoosier State at the ISDH website.



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