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What is a Contact Tracer?

Contact tracing, along with social distancing, are the new buzzwords as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds and disrupts life in most societies.

Contact tracing is not a new concept. Its use as a medical management tool has been around since physicians, and the medical community had an understanding into how contagious diseases spread and infiltrate communities. Ironically, though, the new buzzword of social-distancing has magically re-framed behaviors that might have once been perceived as rude – to behaviors that are not only considered acceptable, but mandatory.

But for those unfamiliar with what is generally a phrase reserved for epidemiological circles,  it is essential to understand how and why contact tracing works, given the dangerous potential this novel coronavirus presents.

What is contact tracing?

A contact tracing definition can be traced back to medical texts printed centuries before Bill Gates made his billions. However, back then, the process of contract tracing relied heavily on the recall of the infected patient(s) – sometimes during or after a catastrophic or tragic event that might have impacted his or her memory. In its early days, contact tracing was anything but an exact science, yet, its human-flawed processes still offered valuable help in managing public health issues for officials facing similar and deadly pandemics.

The computer has changed (and vastly improved) what was once a fallible, manual contact tracing system. The fundamental processes and concepts, once done manually, are now applied to lightning-fast algorithms and statistical tools (think regression analysis and discrete mathematics) to generate remarkable data patterns and insight.  The currently available computing power assesses tremendous amounts of data in the blink of an eye and reveals once hidden, but valuable insight previously lost in piles of unorganized, but inter-connected data.

It is relevant to note that Ebola contact tracing was used in 2014 to help manage, monitor, and on a mission to eradicate that virus outbreak. In addition to contract tracing Ebola virus outbreaks, the technique of contact tracing was also employed during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

What does a contact tracer do?

A contract tracer’s work resembles the work done by a detective who is tasked with the responsibility of following evidence, finding undiscovered facts, and putting the pieces of a puzzle together that gets added to a much larger picture of public health.  Individuals who have been specially trained interview those individuals who have tested positive – in this case for COVID-19 – to learn who they may have been in contact within the recent past. The next step for the infected individual would be to isolate and then contact each of the known individuals that the infected individual may have been in contact with, requesting that they too quarantine in the interest of their own and public health.

According to public health officials and epidemiologists, contact tracing is one of the best techniques available to help manage the spread of COVID-19. Ultimately, the goal is to flatten-the-curve – another 21st century COVID-19-related buzz-phrase, which means to slow the spread of the virus.

What is a contact tracer?

Some experts anticipate that nearly 100,000 contract tracers will be needed to maintain COVID-10 at acceptable levels. At the outset of COVID-19, there were about 2,000 trained contact tracers; currently, there are 30,000.

A contact tracer’s objective to break a transmission chain, which then allows for health officials to manage the coronavirus at acceptable levels, preventing unmanageable outbreaks or surges. By identifying spider-webs of transmission, a contact tracer can document the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus across time and territory with the ultimate goal to stop the spread.

Contact Tracing is Time and Resource Intensive

Contract tracing involves a tremendous amount of manpower to consistently monitor and re-monitor the progress of the infection’s spread, even with the help of remarkable computing power. When you consider the number of resources needed to support those individuals while self-quarantining, who are being monitored through contact tracing initiatives, the need rises to a critical level.

Additionally, COVID-19 is a relatively new virus with yet-to-be-discovered infectiousness and new and unusual symptoms manifesting often. Some studies suggest that the virus may travel further in the air than previously thought.

It is also important to note that many schools – even the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health – is now developing distance learning programs to train contact tracers to help manage the spread of COVID-19. Fortunately, there are many talented individuals with more than enough aptitude to fill these positions based on the rise in unemployment caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The bottom-line – Stay cautious and heed the advice of medical experts. If you have the time, the aptitude, and the desire, join the fight in stopping the spread of COVID-19 by becoming a contact tracer.


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Find Your School is an advertising-supported site. Featured programs and school search results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other information published on this site.