Will contact tracing help ensure people’s safety as shelter-in-place orders are easing up throughout the world?
The quick answer is both yes … and no. Wow, that was helpful, wasn't it? Let me break it down by using the nature of science—and the scientific process—as our guide. But, first, let's make sure we're all on the same page as to what contact tracing is in the first place.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), contact tracing is an important disease-control measure that has been used for years by health officials and their departments to trace and monitor who has come into contact with individuals infected with a disease under investigation. In this case, COVID-19 is the culprit and, to quote one of my favorite fictional superheroes, the game is afoot!
As with any sound scientific investigation, research is an essential tool. Contact tracing is a multifaceted science endeavor that will require thousands, if not tens of thousands, of investigators to pull it off on a national scale.
Say again? Tens of thousands?
Yes. Public health "disease detectives" will have to work with individual patients to identify every single person with whom they came into close contact while they were actively contagious with COVID-19. Once they have compiled this list, public health officials must reach out to all those people to warn them of the possible risks associated with exposure. Additionally, similar lists must be compiled of the people with whom these people came into close contact. And so on.
How hard could it be? Right now, with shelter-in-place orders still active (to some degree) in most parts of the country, contact tracing has been fairly sustainable. According to George Rutherford of the University of California, San Francisco, under current conditions, each new COVID-19 case documented usually only has about five contacts that need tracing. But once "normal" life resumes, people in urban settings could easily come in contact with up to a thousand people a day.
Especially under such more difficult conditions, documentation—another essential element of the scientific process—is crucial. Follow the evidence, confirm the evidence, re-confirm the evidence, catalog the evidence, and work to draw conclusions firmly based on the evidence. The scientific process at its finest.