Public Health Officials End COVID Contact Tracing

key takeaways

  • CDC no longer generally recommends contact tracing to include COVID-19.
  • State and local health departments are scaling back contact tracing for COVID-19 cases, a practice that was important early in the pandemic.
  • While contact tracing will still be done on a limited basis, there is now less demand due to higher vaccination and booster rates and the availability of at-home testing.

As of last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) no longer generally recommends contact tracing to trace and control COVID-19. Right now, they only recommend the tool in settings and high-risk groups.

The agency recommends that local health departments focus on investigating COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in high-risk settings such as long-term care facilities and correctional facilities. They recommend that health departments prioritize notification of potential contacts who are unvaccinated/up-to-date or at increased risk of serious outcomes.

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

Contact tracing is a valuable tool that can help public health officials study and control infectious diseases, but experts say the practice is starting to wane for COVID-19.

Since January, several public health groups have issued statements in support of not tracking every COVID case.

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

“While universal case investigation and contact tracing were implemented in the spring of 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19, much has changed over the past year, prompting the need for a revised public health approach.”

Here’s what experts say is the right move to reduce COVID-19 contact tracing efforts.

How COVID Contact Tracing Works

How Contact Tracing Works

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

The goal of this practice is to break the chain of disease transmission by finding everyone that an infected person has come into contact with.

The process begins when a person is determined to have contracted a disease. Ask the person where they have been and who they have been in contact with, based on how long they have been able to spread the disease (the infectious period).

Health department staff can then alert contacts of an infected person that they have been exposed to the disease.

Smallpox, syphilis and HIV/AIDS have been traced through contact tracing in the past. Then there’s COVID-19.

Different Types of COVID Contact Tracing Apps

not a sign of surrender

Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told VigorTip that, given the size and rapid spread of the first wave of the pandemic, contact tracing has put enormous pressure on public health departments.

George C. Benjamin, MD

Contact tracing is a critical part of case identification and disease control, no doubt about it. But a lot has changed since the pandemic began.

— Georges C. Benjamin, MD

“When this first came up two years ago, in places like New York, where they just had so many cases, you just couldn’t keep up with contact tracing,” Benjamin said.

As the pandemic has evolved, so have the strategies we need to combat it.

“Contact tracing is a critical 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.

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

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

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Still useful, but requires less

Contact tracing “is still very important, but it’s been through the pandemic response,” Crystal Watson, Ph. measure.”

Crystal Watson, Ph.D.

It is important not to eliminate this ability.

—Crystal Watson, Ph.D.

According to Watson, contact tracing “has been a key component of our response during the peak of these very large surges, especially Omicron,” but “it became less useful in containing transmission because it was A resource-intensive activity. It gets overwhelmed quickly.”

However, the practice can still have an impact in institutional settings such as nursing homes where vulnerable groups require special protection.

Continuing to track and disrupt human-to-human transmission of infections in the community is an important public health task, Watson said.

“We do have to keep in mind that there may be virus surges in the future,” Watson said. “And we don’t know what these new variants will look like. It’s important not to eliminate this ability.”

Contact tracing key to reopening schools

use different tools

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

For example, Blackhawk County, Iowa, announced that it was abandoning efforts to track COVID cases across the county. Several New York counties have begun similar drawdowns after Gov. Kathy Hochul declared the practice was no longer needed.

Wider community-based communication tools will be used to continue to monitor and attempt to contain the epidemic.

According to Benjamin, public health officials can “use other means to try to help people realize that they have been infected or are at risk, and then take appropriate steps to get tested.”

Benjamin added that broader home testing has also changed the need for contact tracing. Now, people don’t need to go to a healthcare provider or health department to find out if they are infected.

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

Has Omicron peaked in the US?

establish trust

Throughout the pandemic, there has been widespread resistance to vaccinations and the requirement to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

There have also been reports of people refusing to respond to public health workers tasked with contact tracing, according to Watson.

“There will always be people who don’t want to be exposed to contact tracers,” Watson said. “I know this happens in a variety of different outbreak settings.”

However, most of those who were contacted were willing to use contact tracers. Watson added that the methods used by health sector workers help them interact effectively with the public.

“People always protect their personal information,” Benjamin said. “You’re not only asking them for personal information, [but] You’re also asking them, “Who are you with and when are you with them?” Obviously, it’s a privacy issue. ”

Public health workers who complete contact tracing are very good at personal interaction and have the communication skills needed to make people feel comfortable sharing their personal information.

Benjamin said that throughout the pandemic, and will continue to be so, “building trust is necessary.”

what does this mean to you

Public health departments began scaling back contact tracing for COVID-19 cases. It will still be done on a limited basis, but it has become a less important public health measure due to higher vaccination and booster rates and the availability of at-home COVID testing.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means that you may have updated information as you read this article. For the latest updates on COVID-19, visit our Coronavirus news page.