Public health officials end COVID contact tracing

Key points to remember

  • State and local health departments are reducing contact tracing on COVID-19 cases, a practice that was important early in the pandemic.
  • During the first and worst surges of the pandemic, public health services were strained by the need to trace contacts of infected people. Departments had to scramble for staff and funding.
  • Although contact tracing is still carried out on a limited basis, the need is now less due to higher vaccination and recall rates as well as the availability of home testing.

State and local health departments have begun to scale back contact tracing efforts, which have been a key part of trying to control COVID-19 transmission throughout the pandemic.

Contact tracing is a valuable tool that helps public health officials study and control infectious diseases, but experts say the need for the practice for COVID has begun to wane.

Since January, several public health organizations have issued statements in favor of no longer tracing all COVID cases.

For example, a statement from the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) reads:

“Although universal case investigation and contact tracing was implemented in the spring of 2020 to slow the transmission of COVID-19, a lot has changed over the past year, which has necessitated a revised public health approach.”

Here’s what experts say reducing contact tracing efforts for COVID is the right move.

How contact tracing works

Contact tracing has been a tool that public health departments have used since the turn of the 20th century to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

The aim of the practice is to break the chain of transmission of the disease by finding each person with whom an infected person has been in contact.

The process begins when a person is identified as being infected with a disease. Depending on how long they were able to spread the disease (infectious period), the person is asked where they have been and with whom they have been in contact.

Contacts of an infected person can then be alerted by health service workers that they have been exposed to the disease.

In the past, smallpox, syphilis and HIV/AIDS have been tracked through contact tracing. Then came COVID-19.

Not a sign of surrender

Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Verywell that given the scale and rapid spread of the first wave of the pandemic, contact tracing has put a strain on the public health services.

George C. Benjamin, MD

Contact tracing is an essential part of case identification and disease control, there is no doubt. But a lot has changed since the start of the pandemic.

—George C. Benjamin, MD

“When this thing first hit two years ago, in places like New York where there were so many cases, you just weren’t able to track contact tracing,” Benjamin said. .

As the pandemic evolved, the strategies we needed to fight it also changed.

“Contact tracing is an essential part of case identification and disease control, there’s no question about that,” Benjamin said. “But a lot has changed since the pandemic started,” Benjamin said.

As an example, Benjamin pointed out that the Omicron variant of the COVID virus has such a short incubation period that contact tracing simply cannot keep up with it.

Still, the reduction in contact tracing efforts should not be seen as a white flag of surrender. “It’s not giving up,” Benjamin said. “It’s really a strategy to try to maximize and optimize resources.”

Still useful, but less necessary

Speaking at a press conference, Crystal Watson, DrPH, principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said contact tracing “is still very important , but it has evolved through the response to the pandemic.

Crystal Watson, DrPH

It is important not to eliminate this ability.

— Crystal Watson, DrPH

According to Watson, contact tracing “has been a key part of our response at the height of these very large surges, particularly Omicron” but that “it’s becoming less useful in terms of limiting transmission because it’s ‘a resource-intensive activity’. It is quickly overwhelmed. »

However, the practice can still make a difference in institutional settings like nursing homes where vulnerable populations need special protections.

Watson said continuing to track and disrupt how the infection spreads from person to person in the community is an important public health task.

“We want to keep in mind that there will likely be future outbreaks of the virus,” Watson said. “And we don’t know what these new variants will look like. It is important not to eliminate this ability.

Use different tools

Across the United States, states are taking steps to roll up contact tracing.

For example, Black Hawk County, Iowa, announced it was moving away from countywide efforts to trace COVID cases. A similar reduction began in several New York counties after Governor Kathy Hochul announced the practice was no longer needed.

Broader community communication tools will be used to continue to monitor and attempt to curb the pandemic.

According to Benjamin, public health officials can “use other ways to try to help people realize they’re either infected or at risk, and then do the right things to get tested.”

Benjamin added that the greater availability of home testing has also changed the need for contact tracing. Now people no longer need to see a health care provider or health department to find out if they have been infected.

However, Watson said people who test positive using a home testing kit should report their status to their provider and local health department. They may need to undergo a follow-up polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to ensure their case is followed up.

Build trust

There has been widespread resistance to vaccination and masking and social distancing requirements throughout the pandemic.

According to Watson, there have also been reports of people refusing to respond to public health officers tasked with contact tracing.

“There will always be people who are reluctant to engage with contact tracers,” Watson said. “I know it happens in all sorts of settings with different outbreaks.”

However, most of those contacted were willing to work with contact tracers. Watson added that the methods used by health service staff have helped them interact effectively with the public.

“People always protect their personal information,” Benjamin said. “Not only are you asking them for personal information, [but] you also ask them, ‘Who are you around and when were you around them?’ And of course, it’s a matter of confidentiality.

Public health staff performing contact tracing are very good at personal interaction and have the communication skills necessary to make people feel comfortable sharing their personal information.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic and will continue to be, Benjamin said “building trust is necessary.”

What this means for you

Public health departments are beginning to scale back contact tracing for COVID-19 cases. This will still be done on a limited basis, but has become a lesser public health measure due to higher vaccination and recall rates and the availability of home COVID testing.

The information in this article is current as of the date indicated, which means that more recent information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.