As COVID-19 continues to wreck and rage, many countries and regions are pursuing ways to mitigate the spread by turning towards contact tracing, along with strategic testing and rapid isolation, which are most essential to slow the spread of the virus that has now affected millions of people worldwide.
Contact tracing is a public health tool used by health departments to break the transmission chains and it involves identifying laboratory-confirmed or probable COVID-19 patients and their contacts, who may have been exposed, and working closely with them to disrupt the further transmission of the virus.
The CDC highlights case investigation and contact tracing as key strategies for preventing further spread of COVID-19 and provides guidelines on the core principles of contact tracing. Case-investigation and contact tracing requires training, special knowledge and skills and involves a comprehensive process that commences with interviewing those infected with someone who is a confirmed case. To beat the pandemic, contact tracers must trace all the contacts of infected people and warn them of their exposure to the coronavirus so they do not spread the infection. This is in unprecedented effort and there is a demand for an ‘army’ of contact tracers, a work force of contact tracers with robust training in confidentiality and privacy, who can communicate effectively in a secure and confidential manner. Contact tracing is a strong intervention for containment.
COVID-19 is currently in the community spread phase and calls for location tracing. Integrating location and proximity tracing tools in the data collection process provides an additional dimension to public health officials to assist in tackling the current challenges of contact tracing. Public health analysts are now able to utilize the tools of GIS and are able to able to perform location analytics and assess where spread is happening outside of direct and prolonged contact ( within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes) between two individuals. Technology companies around the world are developing digital tools categorized as centralized and decentralized which when implemented systematically and effectively will help to limit the spread of virus and relax lock-down restrictions. While technological tools make the process more efficient, these raise a multitude of privacy concerns and major challenges like data accuracy and accountability, ethical and legal issues, accessibility and logistical issues, low adoption, technological variations and health equity amongst others.
Well-designed digital tools may be used to enhance and optimize contact tracing and other public health interventions and provide important information to supplement and strengthen the traditional contact tracing capabilities for COVID-19.