May 5, 2020 - Health

What to know about contact tracing

Illustration of a crowd of people with a glowing line identifying positive cases of coronavirus 

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

First it was testing and PPE, then ventilators: The next big coronavirus hurdle for the U.S. is contact tracing.

Why it matters: This is a must-have for reopening while limiting the death toll.

The big picture: Contact tracing is a simple concept. Most countries use a combination of cellphone apps and human contact tracers to track down everyone who came into contact with an infected patient.

  • Those people are then tested and isolated if positive.
  • If you act quickly enough, outbreaks can be contained before becoming hotspots.

Humans are slow and do the process manually, much like a journalist reporting out a story.

  • Apps are fast, using Bluetooth signals to rapidly tell you who you came into contact with. But they come with major privacy and effectiveness concerns.
  • Apple and Google have pushed for public health agencies to adopt their privacy-oriented model, the AP reports. The tech firms are offering an app-building interface they say will work smoothly on billions of phones when the software rolls out sometime this month.

Between the lines: The U.S. has made big strides on testing, but we still don't have the scale needed to pull this off.

  • NPR found that states plan to hire more than 36,000 contact tracing staffers in the short-term.
  • But Johns Hopkins estimates the number needed exceeds 100,000.

The bottom line: Contact tracing won't realistically slow the current out-of-control outbreaks in the U.S, but if we get the people, tech and funding fixed fast, it could help alleviate some of the pain from wave two.

Go deeper: Contact tracing is the next big hurdle in the push to re-open cities

Go deeper