What is contact tracing?
Contact tracing is a process the local health department uses to control and prevent the spread of diseases, like COVID-19. See ACPHD contact tracing fact sheet for more information.
The purpose is to find people who have a disease (cases) and the people they may have exposed (contacts). This can prevent further infections among additional people.
How the health department does contact tracing:
- We identify, contact, and interview people with COVID-19 (cases).
- We interview them to find people that were close to them (close contacts) while they were contagious, up until they separated themselves from others (isolation).
- We then contact and interview their close contacts. We let them know they have been exposed to COVID-19 and assess their risk of getting sick.
- We advise cases and close contacts to:
- Not have physical contact with others (isolation/quarantine)
- Follow guidelines for household cleaning and personal hygiene (e.g., hand washing) to prevent germs from spreading
- Ensure they have basic needs (groceries, prescription refills, cleaning supplies) while under isolation/quarantine
- Identify new or worsening symptoms, and safely seek care from a health care provider (by calling ahead) if needed
- Follow guidance until restrictions (isolation/quarantine) is over
How does contract tracing prevent other COVID-19 cases?
Contact tracing finds people (close contacts) exposed to an ill person who might get sick. Contact tracing breaks the chain of transmission by informing close contacts about being exposed and precautions to take. These include staying home, limiting contact with others, washing hands often, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces often.
The close contacts may or may not become ill. If they become ill, their restrictions under quarantine will reduce the number of others exposed to COVID-19. If they do not become ill, they can likely return to normal activities after their quarantine ends.
How does the health department determine who needs contact tracing?
The health department prioritizes close contacts based on what they learn about them from the case. The health department gives priority to close contacts:
- In high priority groups such as essential workers (e.g., health care, first responders, construction, and grocery)
- Living with people at high risk for complications from COVID-19 (e.g., nursing homes, jails, homeless shelters, or other congregate settings).
Who does contact tracing in Arlington?
A person does not need a medical background to do contact tracing. Staff doing contact tracing are trained and given support to complete their work.
No single staff person carries out all the steps of contact tracing. Teams are in place to carry out specific steps in the overall contact tracing process, to maintain the level of effort the work requires. This includes different roles, such as case investigation, risk assessment of close contacts, active monitoring, and outbreak teams. Almost all contact tracing roles in Arlington are performed offsite (not in person with cases and close contacts), usually with a phone and a computer.
Contact tracers generally:
- Have strong communication and interviewing skills (speaking a language other than English is also a valuable skill)
- Are comfortable collecting detailed information using a computer
- Follow procedures and forms
- Work well in an online team environment
The number of staff doing contact tracing varies, based on the number of cases diagnosed each day. In February 2020, when contact tracing began, about 15 staff from the Public Health Division and Medical Reserve Corps worked on contact tracing activities 7 days a week.
As the number of cases in Virginia and Arlington has grown, so has the number of staff. By the time Governor Northam’s Stay at Home Orders took effect in March, more staff were deployed and trained. As of May 1, there are about 250 staff dedicated to this work. This includes staff from the Public Health Division, Medical Reserve Corps, other Divisions of the Department of Human Services, and other County Departments.
Going forward, we anticipate staffing levels will grow or shrink, with the number of cases in Arlington.
What can I expect if the health department contacts me as a case?
Staff will interview you to learn more about your illness, including your symptoms and when they started. Staff will ask for a detailed history of your activities. You should tell them your activities every day, from two days before your symptoms started until you fully isolated from others.
Staff will ask you about the people you were with during your daily activities and at home. The purpose of these questions is to find people who may have been exposed to the virus before and during your illness. These people are called close contacts.
The health department will contact your close contacts to prevent others from being exposed to COVID-19.
The health department will give you guidance and resources. This will help you manage your isolation and self-care through your illness and recovery.
What does it mean to be a close contact?
Close contacts are people who have been within 6 feet of a person infected with COVID-19 for at least 10 minutes without wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
A person with COVID-19 is able to spread the virus two days before their symptoms started until they are self-isolated from others. If you were within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 10 minutes without proper PPE, you may be considered a close contact to the case.
If I get contacted by the Health Department as a close contact, what can I expect?
Staff will interview you to learn the details of your exposure to the case. Staff will identify the date of last exposure to determine your quarantine period. A quarantine period is usually 14 days after the date you were last exposed to the person with COVID-19. This is the period you could develop symptoms of COVID-19 from your exposure to the case. During the quarantine you will avoid being in close contact with others.
The health department will give you guidance and information to manage your quarantine. This includes how to maintain proper infection prevention and control measures and monitor for symptoms.
If I am a case, will you identify me to close contacts when you interview them?
No, the health department will not identify you to close contacts. However, it may be possible for close contacts to identify you based on the dates, times, and locations where they were exposed.
If I am a close contact and do not become ill, does that mean I will not get COVID-19?
No. You may not get ill while quarantined for the exposure the health department contacted you about – but that does not mean that you are immune to COVID-19.