Disclaimer: At UPMC HealthBeat, we strive to provide the most up-to-date facts in our stories when we publish them. We also make updates to our content as information changes. However, education about COVID-19 can shift quickly based on new data, emerging variants, or other factors. The information in this story was accurate as of its publish date. We also encourage you to visit other reliable websites for updated information, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and your state and local governments.
The coronavirus global pandemic has caused millions of illnesses and hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide.
Many countries have attempted to contain the spread of COVID-19 with prevention methods like social distancing.
Another prevention tactic is contact tracing — identifying people who were in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.
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What Is Contact Tracing?
Health officials have used contact tracing in previous cases of widespread infectious diseases, such as SARS in 2003 and Ebola in 2014.
In contact tracing, trained investigators interview someone who has become ill with an infectious disease. These interviews attempt to find out who the sick person was in close contact with while infected.
Those people are then notified of their potential exposure and are given instructions on what they can do to avoid spreading the disease.
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The specifics of contact tracing — what defines close contact, how long contact had to be, and more — depend on the disease.
Contact Tracing and COVID-19
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the globe, many countries have begun to use contact tracing to contain the virus.
Per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, the level of contact tracing depends on factors like community disease spread and available resources.
The process of contact tracing begins with case investigation. Trained staff members interview people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to find out who they have been in close contact with.
The CDC has guidelines for COVID-19 contact tracing.
A close contact is defined as someone who was within 6 feet of the infected person for at least 15 minutes, starting two days before the infected person first experienced symptoms until he or she was isolated.
If the infected person is asymptomatic, contact tracing starts from two days before he or she tested positive for COVID-19.
Staff will then contact the people identified as being within close contact. They will be informed of their potential exposure to COVID-19, and testing will be recommended.
- If a close contact tests positive for COVID-19, he or she will receive instructions about how to proceed next. Case investigation and contact tracing may follow to determine that person’s close contacts.
- If an asymptomatic close contact tests negative for COVID-19, he or she should self-isolate for 14 days from the last known exposure to the person with COVID-19.
- If testing is not available and the close contact is experiencing symptoms, that person should be managed as a probable case of COVID-19.
- If testing is not available and the close contact is asymptomatic, he or she should self-isolate for 14 days from the last known exposure to the person with COVID-19.
Some apps are attempting to help with contact tracing by using technology. They aim to use Bluetooth signals to identify people who may have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19. UPMC does not use or endorse any specific app.
UPMC offers an online COVID-19 Screening Tool. If you believe you have been exposed to the coronavirus and/or have symptoms, you can use the screening tool to learn what steps you should take next.
Why Is Contact Tracing Important?
Contact tracing is important in preventive medicine, as it can help to control the spread of an infectious disease. In addition to isolating potential cases, it also can help track how the disease spreads and the transmission rate.
Factors like how long it takes symptoms to present and how quickly positive cases are isolated can determine how effective contact tracing is.
Much remains unknown about COVID-19. An April 2020 study in The Lancet Infectious Diseases analyzed COVID-19 cases and contact tracing in China. The study showed a low transmission rate among observed close contacts, painting “a positive picture of the impact of heightened surveillance and isolation.” However, the study authors also noted that it was “impossible to identify every possible contact” and that surveillance could have missed asymptomatic cases.
Researchers likely will continue to learn more as contact tracing continues for COVID-19.
For more information on COVID-19, visit upmc.com/covid19.
Alejandro de la Garza, What Is Contact Tracing? Here's How It Could Be Used to Help Fight Coronavirus. Time. Link
Qifang Bi, et al., Epidemiology and Transmission of COVID-19 in 391 cases and 1286 of Their Close Contacts in Shenzhen, China: A Retrospective Cohort Study. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Contact Tracing for COVID-19. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, When to Initiate Case Investigation and Contact Tracing Activities. Link
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