What is contact tracing? Here’s what you need to know

What is contact tracing? How does it work? What will contact tracing look like in Georgia? Here’s the lowdown

As states look to ease shelter-in-place guidelines, officials say that contact tracing is a key tool in tracking the spread of the coronavirus.

"This has really shifted to become our priority focus in the weeks ahead," Georgia's Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said this week. "This is the way we're going to stop the virus."

So, what is contact tracing? Here’s the lowdown.

  • Epidemiologists use data to map the path of the coronavirus spread from person to person, in a process known as contact tracing.
  • The first carrier to contract a virus is termed "patient zero."
  • Lines are drawn to connect patient zero to every other person that comes in contact with the virus.
  • The goal is to identify potential new infectees and isolate them before the virus can spread further.

"Contact tracing, it's having a moment of glory right now with COVID because of the crucial importance of identifying those individuals who have been exposed quickly and isolating or quarantining them," Dr. Laura Breeher, who works at the Mayo Clinic told TIME.

But it isn’t a new concept. Historically, contact tracing has been a manual process that required individuals to retrace their steps in order to determine who they may have come in contact with. The process is time consuming and requires people to have a perfect memory, in order to be effective.

That’s why government and health care leaders are looking to technology options to make contact tracing more comprehensive and effective.

Tech giants Google and Apple have partnered to develop contact-tracing technology that is expected to be ready by mid-May.

According to an Apple press release, it will "enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design."

The companies plan to release a tool that will let iPhones and Android smartphones talk to each other. It will allow a phone to alert a user if it has been near the phone of someone who has voluntarily reported that they have the virus.

The technology would allow contact tracing to work like this:

  • Smartphone users could voluntarily download a health department app that enables this technology from the Apple/Google partnership.
  • Then, using Bluetooth, your phone sends an anonymous random code to nearby devices using the same technology. According to reporting from USA Today, the code changes every 10-20 minutes to maintain privacy.
  • If you are around someone in public, the devices will exchange codes and store that data for two weeks, the virus' incubation period, then the codes will automatically be deleted. That way, if either user becomes infected, the other could be notified that they had contact and potential exposure, the newspaper reports.
  • If you test positive for the virus, you can then decide if you want to voluntarily report that through the app.
  • Health departments will then verify the diagnosis before sending the information to a cloud-based database.
  • Then, if potential matches are detected from the database, local officials will alert users who may have been exposed to the person who has been diagnosed with the virus.

The AJC's Tamar Hallerman J. Scott Trubey report that it's not entirely clear what contact tracing will look like in Georgia. Although, it is evident that it will take a lot of people to operate.

In an interview with The Washington Post, CDC Director Robert Redfield said there are plans to hire at least 650 additional people to aid state-level contact tracing and other efforts. He suggested that Census Bureau workers and volunteers from AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps could also be tapped for such work.

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