contact tracing

The United States needs as many as 100,000 contact tracers to fight the pandemic, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Congress in June. We need billions of dollars to fund them, public health leaders pleaded in April.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing is downright buzzy, and not always in a good way.

Contact tracing is the public health practice of informing people when they've been exposed to a contagious disease. As it has become more widely employed across the U.S., it has also become mired in modern political polarization and conspiracy theories.

COVID Tracking Apps Proliferate, But Will They Really Help?

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My 18-year-old daughter, Caroline, responded quickly when I told her that she’d soon be able to download an app to alert her when she had been in risky proximity to someone with COVID-19, and that public health officials hoped to fight the pandemic with such apps.

“Yeah, but nobody will use them,” she replied.

Contact tracing is a core disease control measure. When someone tests positive, a contact tracer will ask the infected patient for telephone numbers of people who may have been around them. That way, these contacts can isolate, too.

Critics say South Florida has too few tracers. Others say they're not asking enough questions. Regardless, gaps exist and are growing. 

Hillsborough County's move to track down who has been around people who have contracted the coronavirus is set to ramp up in the next month.

The county's "contact tracing" program looks to get in touch with anyone who has been around people with the virus, and have them self-isolate to prevent its spread.

More people are being tested for coronavirus in Florida as cases spike across the state. This is causing a logjam, not only in getting tested, but also in receiving results.

Broward County Mayor Dale Holness said Tuesday that the county has just brought on board an additional 150 people to trace contacts of people who have coronavirus — almost doubling the number of people available to help combat the spread of the virus.

With the 150 people he said were “onboarded” Monday by the Broward County unit of the state Department of Public Health, Holness said there is a workforce of 340 involved in the effort.

As the U.S. begins to open back up, coronavirus clusters — where multiple people contract COVID-19 at the same event or location — are popping up all over the country. And despite drawing massive crowds, protests against police violence and racial injustice in Washington state weren't among those clusters.

An NPR survey of state health departments shows that the national coronavirus contact tracing workforce has tripled in the past six weeks, from 11,142 workers to 37,110. Yet given their current case counts, only seven states and the District of Columbia are staffed to the level that public health researchers say is needed to contain outbreaks.

As an infectious disease nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic, Debbie Sorensen works as a memory detective on a tight deadline.

The mystery she's trying to untangle is where an infected person has been and who's been with them. Her sleuthing tools include a telephone, a wall calendar and the firm, but calming voice that comes with 20 years of experience with the Salt Lake County Public Health Department in Salt Lake City.

A birthday party held during the coronavirus pandemic might as well be the stuff of mystery novels.

“When you have a larger party, then that’s when we start talking about outbreak management,” said Angel Algarin, a public health and epidemiology doctoral student at Florida International University. “You almost feel like Sherlock Holmes, doing that investigative work.”

Contact tracing is a traditional public health technique that involves detecting positive cases and monitoring their close contacts to keep contagious diseases from spreading.
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The Florida Department of Health says it’s bringing on more contact tracers to keep track of COVID-19 cases, as the state continues to reopen.

After facing weeks of criticism, Florida’s leaders feel vindicated in their response to coronavirus. Even though death totals are rising in the state, it appears Florida dodged the worst of the pandemic by some metrics.

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.

Note: The graphic in this story is no longer being updated. For more recent data, go to our new post on this topic.

Updated May 7, 5:36 p.m. ET: This story was originally published on April 28. We've updated it throughout to reflect updates and new data from several states.

The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, says contact tracing will be vital in the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

Poor countries have advice to offer.

Contact tracing is used all over the world, including in the U.S. The idea is to track down anyone in recent contact with a newly diagnosed patient, then monitor the health of these contacts. In the developing world, it's been a valuable tool in fighting infectious diseases like Ebola and tuberculosis. Public health workers there have lots of experience.

It's the question on everyone's minds: What will it take for us to come out of this period of extreme social distancing and return to some semblance of normal life?

It turns out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been working on a plan to allow the U.S. to safely begin to scale back those policies. CDC Director Robert Redfield spoke with NPR on Thursday, saying that the plan relies on not only ramped-up testing but "very aggressive" contact tracing of those who do test positive for the coronavirus, and a major scale-up of personnel to do the necessary work.