What is contact tracing? Here's how it is being used in SC to respond to the coronavirus

Nathaniel Cary
Greenville News

As South Carolina ramps up its capacity to test up to 220,000 people for the novel coronavirus by the end of June, it’s simultaneously created and trained a small army of contact-tracers to track and attempt to limit the virus’ further spread.

Here’s what we know about contact tracing in South Carolina.

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is a normal public health function that’s typically performed hundreds of times each year by about 20 epidemiology employees at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to prevent the spread of infectious diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis, said Laura Renwick, a DHEC spokesperson.

More:Invasion of privacy or essential response? Contact tracing is being debated while in use

It involves locating, contacting, interviewing and educating a person who has been diagnosed with an infectious disease like COVID-19 — as well as people with whom an infected person has had close contact.

How do they reach people, and what questions are asked?

A contact tracer will make phone calls to reach people and first explain the situation and the need for a person to isolate. The tracer will ask questions about who a person has been in close contact with and where they’ve gone.

The tracers will then call those close contacts to let them know they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and will educate them on protective measures they should take. They will also monitor them for symptoms, DHEC said.

Contact tracers will also link COVID-positive people and their close contacts to medical and social resources, according to DHEC.

As South Carolina ramps up its capacity to test up to 220,000 people for the novel coronavirus by the end of June, it’s simultaneously created and trained a small army of contact-tracers to track and attempt to limit the virus’ further spread.

How do I know a contact tracer is real and not a scammer?

When a contact tracer makes initial contact, the contact tracer has already been provided with specific medical information about the individual that a general member of the public wouldn't know, DHEC said.

Who is a contact tracer?

A contact tracer is a person trained in how to contact those who’ve either been diagnosed with an infectious disease like COVID-19 or have had close contact with someone diagnosed with the disease.

Contact tracers can have public health backgrounds, but that's not required. During the pandemic, DHEC has trained more than 400 employees as contact tracers and has identified 1,400 more people who qualify as contractors to perform contact tracing if needed, according to DHEC.

“A contact tracer doesn’t have to be a long-time trained clinical professional with a stethoscope hanging around their neck,” said Nick Davidson, the incident commander of DHEC's pandemic response team. “These are individuals who can be trained to understand rules around confidentiality, can be trained to inform people of basic actions that they need to take, and also to ask some basic questions about their risk of exposure to the disease.”

A contact tracer can be anyone who has an understanding of some of the basic principles of contact tracing, cares about their community and is empathetic to the situation people are potentially facing if they’ve contracted COVID-19 or have been in close contact with a COVID-positive person, Davidson said.

What training is needed to be a contact tracer for COVID-19?

The state health agency is using two online training programs. One is a three-hour session through the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. The second is a six-hour course offered by Johns Hopkins University.

Contact tracers will also be trained in DHEC’s procedures, Davidson said.

Anyone interested in becoming a contact tracer can register through DHEC’s website, scdhec.gov.

A coronavirus fact sheet hangs on the receptionist window at Triune Mercy Center.

Why is contact tracing needed?

Contact tracing helps public health agencies determine who may have been exposed to an infectious disease so they can take steps to limit its spread so more people don’t get sick.

As South Carolina reopens, contact tracing will help DHEC locate disease hot spots and respond so the virus doesn’t surge into a new outbreak, DHEC officials say.

What does a contact tracer know about individuals?

Contact tracers receive case reports directly from the state health lab, so they will know an individual’s specific medical information and any information gathered when an individual was tested for the virus, according to DHEC.

What information will be shared with others?

The amount of information shared with close contacts depends on the case and is based on the level of contact and other case-specific information, DHEC said.

For instance, DHEC may notify the organizer of an event that someone who tested positive had attended, and DHEC might ask for the organizer to alert other guests to monitor themselves or consider getting tested, said Dr. Brannon Traxler, DHEC physician.

“We always notify the public or whatever audience needs to know for the benefit of public health,” Traxler said. “The main thing we look at is, is it actionable information, so is there an action that is recommended for the people that we are notifying.”

Contact tracers may share more specific information with people who are close family members or who had known significant contact with a COVID-positive person.

Is a smartphone app being used to help with contact tracing?

Some countries like China, Singapore and South Korea have extensively used applications on smartphones as a way to track prior movements of those who’ve been diagnosed with the coronavirus and alert people who’ve come into contact with the individual.

Apple and Google partnered to create an app in the U.S. that uses Bluetooth technology that the companies have made available to state public health agencies.

Asked if South Carolina planned to use an app, a DHEC spokesperson said it is currently reviewing options for a mobile app.

Downloading an app would be voluntary and would work only for those who enable location-sharing features, according to Apple.

“The choice to use this technology rests with the user, and he or she can turn it off at any time by uninstalling the contact tracing application or turning off exposure notification in Settings,” Apple has said in a written statement.

Are there concerns about invasion of privacy with contact tracing?

At least four Upstate Republican lawmakers said they have privacy concerns about contact tracing, but Gov. Henry McMaster, DHEC officials and other Republican lawmakers said those concerns are overblown and that while important for the health of others, no one is forced to participate in contact tracing. 

“This is not China. No one is coming to kick in your door and drag you out and put you in a cell,” said Rep. Murrell Smith, a Republican from Sumter who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “There is no law that says you have to cooperate."

Nathaniel Cary is an investigative reporter with The Greenville News. He can be reached at ncary@greenvillenews.com or @nathanielcary on Twitter.