What to Expect If a COVID-19 Contact Tracer Calls You
By Joni Sweet
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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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
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As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
Time for Action<p>I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.</p><p>Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/scientific-integrity-policies-update" target="_blank">Obama administration</a> would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.</p><p>I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.</p><p>We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.</p>
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<div id="da98c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="478a197b7c59c92787c92bec92f1ac39"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1331662923710693376" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Bristol Bay forever, Pebble mine never. #NoPebbleMine #SaveBristolBay https://t.co/CBQ9zuy8A5</div> — Save Bristol Bay (@Save Bristol Bay)<a href="https://twitter.com/SaveBristolBay/statuses/1331662923710693376">1606328156.0</a></blockquote></div>
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