As contact tracers, what we fear most is silence.
Our goal in contact tracing is to interrupt the viral transmission of COVID-19. We identify who an infected individual has come into contact with and notify the possibly exposed individuals that they should quarantine at home.
In a pandemic, engaging with contact tracers matters — especially now. As of Tuesday, Philadelphia is registering some of its lowest daily case counts since March. However, we still have localized outbreaks, and exposures will increase as local schools and restaurants reopen. We can’t let up — we’re still on the front lines of battling this virus. To contain COVID-19 and keep counts down, we must seize this moment and work together to avoid the catastrophes that hit other states when they reopened.
Contact tracing is one of the most important tools we have against the COVID-19 pandemic. In the U.S., with a population of over 300 million, it’s hard to fathom that our individual actions make a difference. But we cannot effectively contact trace without the public’s engagement. We treat every call as an opportunity to break the chain of transmission, and we need the public to treat each call as such, too. We want contact tracing to be something that is done with you, not to you. Engaging in contact tracing is just as important as staying home, practicing physical distancing, and wearing a mask.
Contact tracers are trained to maintain confidentiality. We never share identifying information about people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. We never ask for sensitive information such as Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, or immigration status. We do ask about your health and well-being, where you have been, and who you have seen in person.
Despite our assurances of confidentiality, gaining people’s trust can be a hurdle. In a world of robocalls and telephone scams, it’s tough getting someone to pick up their phone, return our call, or divulge information. Teams across the nation (e.g., in D.C. and Boston) have reported phone pickup rates averaging 60%. Our team reaches approximately 75% of the individuals we call. But our biggest challenge is getting people to tell us the names and phone numbers of everyone they have been in contact with.
There are many reasons why we don’t receive complete information about contacts.
Some people are reluctant to share their friend’s phone number, while others simply don’t know the contact information of their local barista. Whatever the reason may be, we ask that you share any information you have about the contact with us. It may not be a full name or a phone number — we will work with whatever you can provide us to do our job as contact tracers.
When we call you to ask about your contacts, we also share information about resources available to you and how you can protect yourself and your community. If we talk to anyone who expresses difficulty in paying for food, rent, or medications, we can refer them to our Penn Social Needs Response Team for help.
As we await a vaccine, effective contact tracing with public engagement can support getting life “back to normal.” We need all Philadelphians to keep track of where they went, who they saw, and when they saw them (the who-what-when-where).
In Germany, this type of careful recordkeeping has become the new norm. Privacy was a major concern of German citizens prior to the pandemic, but now giving personal details to contact tracers has become a small price to pay for resuming activities outside the home.
As the leads of a contact tracing team, we hear lots of stories: the highs and lows, the joys and devastation. We hear from the families for whom getting COVID-19 is one of many other worries, like figuring out where their next meal will come from. We learn about unsafe work environments. But alongside these stories of devastation, we also hear stories of hope — like individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 and want to donate plasma to help others “beat this thing.”
We welcome these stories — all of them — because they can inform our pandemic control efforts. What we fear most is silence. So the next time your phone rings and a contact tracer is on the other end, please share your story. Tell us where you have been and who you have seen, so that together, we can help keep you, your loved ones, and our communities safe.