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What is contact tracing?

This article was last updated April 18, 2024

Contact tracing is a simple, confidential process that has been used by public health departments for decades to slow the spread of infectious diseases and reduce outbreaks.

Contact tracing involves identifying and notifying individuals who may have been exposed to someone infected with the virus, advising them on testing and quarantine measures, and monitoring their health to prevent further transmission. The goal of contact tracing is to try and disrupt the spread of a virus.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing was all over the news. People from all walks of life jumped at the opportunity to make a difference in public health—and in their own communities. These individuals took a course or received on-the-job training for thousands of available positions in a discipline that wasn’t exactly new but was largely unfamiliar to the general population.

Now contact tracing is part of the vernacular, though the term is used far less often. When the Omicron variant hit, the fast spreading nature of the disease meant that contact tracing could no longer keep up. In addition, masking, vaccination and vaccine mandates largely pushed aside contact tracing as a tool to protect against Covid-19.

Image courtesy of St.Lukes Health

Although contact tracing is far less used today in helping control Covid-19, it is still used in certain settings, such as long term care facilities, schools and in other settings where large groups regularly gather.

If you do receive a call from a contact tracer, you can do your part by answering the call and sharing with the health department where you have been and the people you have been around while you were infectious.

The people you tell the health department about will be contacted, but not be told your name or contact information, so they may also stay home and help prevent others from getting sick.

The health department will never ask you about your immigration status or other personal information unrelated to your health. Contact tracers may also help connect you with services or COVID-19 testing if you are unable to do so on your own.

Source: CDC, CDC Foundation

This article was written and edited by the Tayo editorial desk and has been reviewed by an independent panel of subject matter experts.

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