Tempting as it is to ignore unknown phone numbers, it may be a contact tracer trying to help you. Getty Images
  • Ignoring calls from contact tracers could put you at risk of unknowingly transmitting the virus to your loved ones.
  • Contact tracers call people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
  • Contact tracing is only as effective as people’s willingness to participate, and a small number of people who’ve contracted the virus or were potentially exposed are reluctant to talk.

If you get a call from a number you don’t recognize, don’t hit decline — it might be a contact tracer calling to let you know that someone you’ve been near has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Ignoring calls from contact tracers could put you at risk of unknowingly transmitting the virus to your loved ones.

It can even land you in legal hot water if you knowingly avoid contact tracers.

Earlier this month, officials in Rockland County, New York, sent subpoenas to eight people who refused to participate in contact tracing and threatened them with thousands of dollars in fines.

Hearing the phrase “You may have been exposed to the coronavirus” coming from the other end of the line can be scary, but it’s important to stay on the phone. Here’s what to expect if you get a call from a contact tracer.

Interviews with contact tracers

Contact tracing is a public health strategy that involves identifying everyone who may have been in contact with a person who has the coronavirus. Contact tracers collect information and provide guidance to help contain the transmission of disease.

It’s been used during outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), Ebola, measles, and now the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

It starts when the local department of health gets a report of a confirmed case of the coronavirus in its community and gives that person a call. The contact tracer usually provides information on how to isolate and when to get treatment, then tries to figure out who else the person may have exposed.

“We ask who they’ve been in contact with in the 48 hours prior to symptom onset, or 2 days before the date of their positive test if they don’t have symptoms,” said Dr. Heidi Gullett, associate director of the Center for Community Health Integration at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and medical director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Health in Ohio.

If the person with the coronavirus hasn’t left their home much, it’s a relatively straightforward process.

The interview can get a lot more involved if the person has been traveling, working outside the home, socializing, and seeing lots of other people. The person might need to review their calendar, create a timeline of everywhere they’ve been, and figure out how long they spent with different individuals.

“We’re not concerned about every single contact with others, just the high-risk contacts, defined as being within 6 feet of someone else for 15 minutes or more,” said Brian Labus, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ School of Public Health and a member of Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s task force to advise on the scientific aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The case interviews can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours, depending on the complexity.

“You’ve been exposed”

After the case interview, contact tracers will get to work calling the folks who may have been exposed to the coronavirus by the person who tested positive.

“We give them recommendations about quarantining or isolating, getting tested, and what to do if they become sick. If they’re not already sick, we still want them to self-quarantine so that they don’t spread the disease to anyone else if they were to become sick,” said Labus.

Generally, the contact tracer won’t ask for additional contacts unless they happen to call someone who is sick or has a confirmed case of the virus. They will help ensure the contact has the resources they need to isolate themselves, if necessary. The contact tracer may continue to stay in touch with that person over the next 14 days.

“We follow the percentage of people that were contacts, then converted into being actual cases of the virus. It’s an important marker to help us understand what kind of transmission happens in our community and how to control the virus,” said Gullett.

Why you should participate (and what happens if you don’t)

A Lancet study from June 16, which looked at data from more than 40,000 people, found that COVID-19 transmission could be reduced by 64 percent through isolating those who have the coronavirus, quarantining their household, and contacting the people they may have exposed.

The combination strategy was significantly more effective than mass random testing or just isolating the sick person and members of their household.

However, contact tracing is only as effective as people’s willingness to participate, and a small number of people who’ve contracted the coronavirus or were potentially exposed are reluctant to talk.

“Contact tracers have all been hung up on, cussed at, yelled at,” said Gullet.

The hesitation to talk to contact tracers often stems from concerns over privacy — a serious issue in healthcare.

“These investigations are all conducted through health departments which have strict laws about what can and can’t be shared. Protecting people’s privacy is a core part of what we do, and we don’t release the information you share to the public or tell other people about your medical history,” said Labus.

The Federal Trade Commission has guidance on how you can protect your privacy and make sure you’re speaking to a legitimate contact tracer. Remember: A contact tracer will never ask for your immigration status, Social Security number, or any sort of payment.

While legal action against people who refuse to talk to contact tracers (like the eight people who received subpoenas in Rockland County) is rare, it can happen. The bigger risk of avoiding these calls is the potential for you to miss out on important guidance about your own health, undermine your state’s ability to reopen safely, and transmit the virus to others.

“If you’re doing contact tracing and you’re getting a bad filtering rate — meaning you’re only getting in touch with a fraction of the people you try to contact — then the program isn’t effective or useful. The coronavirus is extremely contagious, so missing a few cases can lead to an outbreak,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.

“We shouldn’t sit here and think that the only options are to ride it out or get a vaccine,” he added. “There are other public health measures we can take, and contact tracing is one of them.”

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