Effective Contact Tracing Is the Key to Reopening Our Communities

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In the absence of an effective vaccine and proven treatments, cities, counties, and states will need to trace and treat those who have been in contact with COVID-19-infected patients.

We have heard so much talk about “reopening the economy” following the closures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. But really, the effort in front of us goes beyond reversing truly horrific economic trendlines; it’s about restoring the safety, security, and vitality of our communities and fulfilling local governments’ core mission of promoting quality of life and access to opportunity. While we can impose timelines and aspirational goals about when to relax restrictions, the reality is that residents themselves will largely decide when they feel safe enough to reengage in “normal” activities, and doing so before our communities are ready only promotes a lose-lose situation wherein the economy cannot fully recover and the process of containing the virus will be prolonged.  

How do we make our communities safe and instill the confidence in residents to resume some activities? Obviously, the presence of a vaccine would help a great deal.  But we cannot wait the 12-plus months scientists tell us it will take for delivery of a viable vaccine to return to some form of normal. Community leaders and public health advocates are coalescing around an interim approach to fighting the spread of the disease — some call it The Three T’s: Testing, Tracing, and Treatment. While testing has been the focus of much discussion, and treatment approaches are being developed and refined, an area that has received less attention is the massive effort that will be required to trace and quarantine those exposed to infected individuals. So what is contact tracing? Who can do it? And how do cities, counties, and states gear up for it?

  • Contact tracing is the process of identifying those who have come into contact with COVID-19-infected patients and reaching out to them so that they may be tested, self-isolated, and, if necessary, treated.
  • Each infected individual has likely interacted with up to 50 people in the days surrounding their infection, and it is estimated that a COVID-19-infected individual can infect 2-5-plus individuals.
    Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimates that the U.S. may need 100,000 contact tracers nationwide throughout the duration of the pandemic; Guidehouse believes this estimate may understate the need for workers and volunteers, and believes an effort similar in scope to the U.S. Census may be required.
  • While cities and states have been doing contact tracing for years, they have never done it at anything approaching this scale, and lack the workforce, technology, analytic capability, and management capacity to undertake such an effort.

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