Contact Tracing And The Fight Against COVID-19: How We Failed

By this time, most Americans have a general idea of what contact tracing is and its role in curtailing the spread of the virus. In simplest terms, it’s when a healthcare worker reaches out to you to inform you that you have been in contact with someone infected with COVID-19.  They advise potentially infected people to get tested and to self-isolate for 2 weeks.  It’s one of the most effective methods of tracking down the virus and stopping it from spiraling out of control and has been used with great success in Wuhan, South Korea, Singapore and many other places that have successfully curbed their outbreaks.  It is most effective when used in conjunction with a robust testing initiative, social distancing and reliable mask wearing.


As the pandemic rages out of control, with new daily cases climbing in 40 states, you may be wondering at our own approach to getting a handle on the virus and where we are, as a nation, in responding to this crisis.  There was a lot of talk earlier in the year about the importance of contact tracing. And while there were valid concerns over privacy and outsourcing, it was agreed across the board that it was essential in fighting COVID-19. So what happened?


It is estimated that for a contact tracing program to be effective in the United States, we would need roughly 300,000 tracers. Right now, 4 months into a catastrophic pandemic, we have under 40,000 (just under 70,000 if you include the plans to recruit the National Guard, Americorps and volunteers) with only 8 states meeting the staff numbers necessary to effectively contain their respective cases.  It doesn’t help that there has been no united federal response, leaving states on their own to organize and implement large scale programs with no guidance. And unfortunately, many states reopened before an appropriate contact tracing program was launched and whatever flattening of the curve we were able to accomplish during the months of lockdowns across the country, has been wiped out in a matter of weeks.


The CDC recently announced that COVID-19 is now too widespread to control the way other countries already successfully have and that it is, “really the beginning.”  Dr. Fauci warned last Tuesday that the US would soon be 100,000 new cases a day and said just this Sunday that a vaccine, whenever that arrives, may not be enough to achieve herd immunity.  So what’s the answer?  We may be able to bolster our contact tracing programs.  It seems like an elegant way of putting a significant amount of the recently unemployed back to work.  But while some states are starting to expand their programs, it’s looking like too little too late.


All hope is not lost, though the road ahead will be difficult and we can now mitigate only so much.  But while government officials are dragging their feet passing another stimulus bill and reinstituting lock downs, Hong Kong has been able to effectively control it’s viral spread by consistent mask wearing.  Now we just have to convince our fellow citizens to put on their own masks.


To take Johns Hopkins’ free online contact tracing course, click here.

To get work as a contact tracer, contact your local health department for more information.


Yours in Strength,

The Take Back Control Team


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