Connecting the COVID-19 dots: How contact tracing works

It's a scenario many of us may experience in the weeks and months ahead: we get a phone call from our health department, telling us we may have been exposed by someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. 

Sherry Gregory, Director of the Infectious Disease Department for the North Georgia Health District, says her six-county district has 34 contract tracers. Their goal, she says, is to slow the spread of the coronavirus by keeping people who may have been exposed to the virus from infecting others.

When someone in their district tests positive for COVID-19, Gregory says, a contact tracer will call the person, interview them, and ask them about their recent contact with others around them. Then, the tracers try to track down anyone who recently had close contact with the infected person, which the CDC defines as being within six feet of someone for more than 15 minutes.

Because many people with COVID-19 don't have symptoms or experience very mild illness, Gregory says, they may be infecting others without realizing it. So, contact tracers notify close contacts of a possible exposure, asking them to stay home and quarantine for 14 days. It can be a hard task, she says.    

"We do run the gamut," Gregory says. "We have people that are not happy about it and don't want to participate. But, most everybody that we're working with, we provide the education, and it's not just a blind call, either."

Close contacts will be asked to get tested for COVID-19 and track their symptoms, through an app provided by the Georgia Department of Public Health.

The monitoring tool was developed by Google/MTX and allows contact tracers to monitor a person's symptoms and answer questions.

People with mild symptoms will be encouraged to get tested and will receive daily messages for two weeks during their quarantine.

Those with more severe symptoms will be asked to notify their physician and seek emergency care, if necessary.

"Daily, they log in, via text or phone call, and we ask them to monitor their symptoms and monitor their temperature twice a day," Gregory says.  "So, they'll report that daily to us. If they're not able to use the app, they also have the ability to make a phone call."

Gregory says there is a learning curve to contact tracing.

"We've had some struggles with the app, the technology of the app," she says.  "We're still working through some workarounds."

Language is another challenge.

"We have a large Hispanic community in our district," Gregory says, "And, unfortunately, the app does not have the Spanish language.  That is something they're hoping to correct, but it currently does not have Spanish. It's only in English."

For now, Gregory says her health district is using bilingual contact tracers to communicate with Spanish-speaking residents over the phone.

The Georgia Department of Public Health says it working with the CDC Foundation to train and deploy over 1,000 contact tracers within the next few weeks.