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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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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