As Florida moves forward with the first phase of opening its economy, experts say contact tracers are a key piece of helping to monitor and quash the spread of the coronavirus.
Perry Brown is a professor of public health in epidemiology at Florida A&M University. He calls contact tracing the “bread and butter” of public health.
“Contact tracing is a tried and true method that is used in public health and infectious disease for getting in contact with individuals who are named as a close contact to an individual who has become infected. We use it across the board for a myriad of infectious conditions,” Brown says.
The practice of contact tracing is already used daily to help fight the spread of other conditions, like sexually transmitted infections. In the case of the coronavirus, Brown says it’s likely to be even more effective since COVID-19 doesn’t carry a stigma.
Typically, the process starts by asking someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus who they have recently had close contact with. Then a contact tracer, who would likely be using a script in a call center, reaches out over the phone.
“Because of confidentiality, we don’t say ‘oh by the way I’m contacting you because you were exposed to George,’” Brown says. “But they say that you may have been exposed to COVID 19 in this case or another infectious condition and we would like for you to come in and be tested.”
Brown says that’s especially important with the coronavirus since many people could be carrying and spreading the virus without showing any symptoms or knowing they are sick. But he says health officials do need to hurry to catch up with the spread.
“Contact tracing is the bread and butter, it’s the tried and true method that we use. However, with COVID-19, with the explosive number of cases that we have, not just the test positives, but with those who are non-symptomatic, it’s going to be a major uphill fight to try to contact everybody, but it’s worth the effort,” Brown says.
The National Association of County and City Health Officials says during emergencies, states need about 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people. According to an NPR report, Florida does not meet that need.