You might have never heard the phrase "contact tracing" until recently.
Now it's a part of the daily conversation about the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said that contact tracing is key to halting the spread of the disease.
It's not a new idea. In fact, contact tracing is used all over the world. It's based on the knowledge that someone with a contagious disease will infect a certain number of people. With the coronavirus, it's likely two or three. So the goal is to track down anyone in recent contact with a newly diagnosed patient, then monitor the health of these contacts while they stay at home for the period of time when they might become infected — roughly two weeks — or are held in an isolation facility.
You can read our article about contact tracing or get the essential details from our video above.
As the U.S. hires potentially hundreds of thousands of contact tracers to contain the coronavirus, health departments could look to models from such regions as Africa, South Asia and Latin America on how these teams will do their work.
Partners in Health, which is known for its work in Haiti, Rwanda and Peru, is helping to set up a coronavirus contact tracing program in Massachusetts.
In West Africa, contact tracing was crucial in bringing the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak to a close.
Raj Panjabi's organization Last Mile Health helped set up contact tracing teams in Liberia during that crisis.
"We couldn't break the chain of transmission and drive the epidemic down to zero cases in Liberia without contact tracing," says Panjabi, a physician at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital.
In the remote part of Liberia where Panjabi's group was working, contact tracers were hired to investigate each Ebola case and track down all the "contacts" of those diagnosed cases.
"The contact tracers got hired and chosen from within the community," says Panjabi — and that kind of community knowledge offers a tremendous advantage. "They'd locate the listed contact because they know the community. They have trust with the community," he says. "And they'd identify any additional contacts who were missed in the initial investigation."
Panjabi says having social connections and being good with people is more important in this job than a medical degree. Most of the people doing this work for Last Mile Health were not medical professionals, but the teams reported to nurses and public health officials.
As the U.S. looks to contain the coronavirus so that the economy can start to reopen, Raj Panjabi says contact tracing could be a win-win.
"Where are the hundreds of thousands of American [contact tracers] going to come from?" Panjabi asks. "One possible way is to actually hire Americans who've been unemployed by this pandemic and put them to work."