What is Contact Tracing?

Contact tracing has been mentioned frequently in the news as a way to stop the spread of coronavirus and I have set out to understand what exactly the process entails. Each state’s public health department has had a different experience trying to implement contact tracing, however the challenges seem to be the same: lack of scalability, high costs, and missing data.

What is it?

Contact tracing is the process of locating and testing people that are known to have been in contact with an infected person. By identifying, contacting, and staying in touch with these contacts after exposure proper treatment and transmission prevention are more likely. It has been used in the past to deal with diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and Ebola. The practice is most effective when these viruses or illnesses have not become widespread yet and when there are a significant amount of resources and labor dedicated to enforcing it.

What are the steps involved in contact tracing?

  1. Identifying close contacts – After someone tests positive (person under investigation), a contact tracer who is dedicated to helping stop the spread interviews them to ensure that they are safe, have access to the medications and food that they need, identify if they are able to isolate, and inquire about other people whom they’ve been in close contact with.
  2. Contact close contacts – The contact tracer then reaches out to each person who has been exposed and may be at risk for infection, informs them, and asks them to quarantine for two weeks. In most states, the goal is to make initial contact with these people within 24 hours of the positive test result.
  3. Follow-up – After a certain amount of time, the contact tracer contacts the close contacts again to learn if they have begun to have symptoms or not.. If anyone develops develops symptoms, then the process begins again.

What are common challenges to contact tracing during COVID-19?

  • Training & Costs – Over 20,000 new COVID-19 infections are being reported every day, creating a huge task load for interviewing and contacting close contacts. Currently, there are only a finite number of people actually trained to help with contact tracing.
  • Testing & Infectiousness – The way in which COVID-19 is contracted is uncertain. Chance encounters have had to be considered potential spread. Additionally, testing was slow to ramp up and it has been recently discovered that even asymptomatic people can transmit the virus, majorly undermining the process.
  • Jurisdiction - With state and local agencies in charge of managing contact tracing programs, a problem exists in standardizing the data and deciding where responsibility lies when infected people travel or cross state lines.
  • Lack of universal data – A major hurdle is that these state and local agencies receive testing results from independent labs who oftentimes don’t collect all of the necessary demographic or contact information that is needed to conduct proper contact tracing procedures.

How can proactive data management help?

With proactive data management infrastructure (like Verato), teams can overcome the hurdles created by a lack of universal data.

For example, electronic lab results serve as the trigger to investigations by state and local agencies into who infected people have been in contact with. However, according to the New York Times, it is estimated that 80% of laboratory reports lack key contact information like patient address or zip code, posing a major hurdle to the contact tracing process.

Verato helps to make this person data complete and accurate by applying our next-generation identity matching technology. The data completeness and record matching means that lab teams and contact tracers save valuable time. They won’t need to spend time researching the data that has already been provided, potentially missing out on key contacts that could help stop the spread.