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Contact Tracing is Key to Reopening Schools, Experts Say

Contact tracing illustration

 Catherine Song / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • Many countries such as South Korea and Australia have instituted strict systems of contact tracing to control the COVID-19 virus.
  • Contact tracers interview those who test positive for COVID-19 to find out who they have been in close contact with.
  • Effective contact tracing is key for virus control and prevention and would help allow schools to reopen sooner.

As COVID-19 threatens the coming school year for kids across the country, health experts and education administrators alike look to countries abroad to determine which measures have allowed for the successful reopening of schools and which have fallen short. 

A recent study published in The Lancet focuses on these reopening strategies and states that an absence of a large-scale testing, contact tracing, and isolation strategy could bolster the likelihood of a second pandemic wave of COVID-19.

This test-trace-isolate strategy is nothing new to countries like South Korea and Australia, both of which immediately instituted countrywide testing with a goal to eventually be able to identify every new case of COVID.

It Starts With A Test: What is Contact Tracing? 

Contact tracing is the rapid identification and testing of individuals that an infected person has recently been in contact with, so as to “catch” secondary individuals who might have become infected and prevent them from further spreading the infection, says James M. Crawford, MD Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Laboratory Services at Northwell Health and Professor at Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research. 

The Contact Tracing Process

  1. The process of contact tracing begins with a positive test result. The result is reported to the state’s health department, which then has a contact tracer reach out to the ill person.
  2. Using a series of questions in an interview-type format, the contact tracer asks the infected person to recall as many places they’ve been and people they’ve been in close contact with since the onset of their symptoms.
  3. Then, those people are contacted, informed of possible exposure, asked about any symptoms they might be experiencing, and urged to both undergo COVID-19 testing and/or to quarantine in their homes or another safe place for a period of 14 days. 

Contact Tracing is Key to Controlling COVID-19

It sounds relatively simple, but the success of contact tracing efforts hinge on the implementation of a robust and widespread system of testing for COVID-19, like those in place in South Korea and Australia.

This is something the US has yet to implement in an efficient or systematic way, says Steven Waters, CEO and Founder of CONTRACE Public Health Corps. “The US as a whole does not have a national contact tracing strategy – states have been left on their own to implement contact tracing strategies and programs. This has resulted in a patchwork of state efforts across the country, some more successful than others.”

With cases of COVID-19 increasing in many states, expanded testing would allow positive cases to be identified earlier. This would enable contact tracers to alert close contacts who were potentially exposed before they, in turn, infect others, clearly a beneficial measure for reopening schools.

Effective contact tracing enhances the possibility of quarantining only one classroom (ie those in close contact with a positive COVID case) versus an entire school building. 

Instead of expanding our testing efforts, a recent article in Business Insider reports a 13% decline in testing nationwide over the past two weeks. And those who are tested have to wait three to five days or even longer in order to receive results. In cases where people aren’t self-quarantining while waiting for results, contact tracers have to cast a much wider net in order to track down potentially infected contacts. 

Steven Waters

The US as a whole does not have a national contact tracing strategy – states have been left on their own to implement contact tracing strategies and programs. This has resulted in a patchwork of state efforts across the country, some more successful than others.

— Steven Waters

Then, of course, there’s the issue of finding and hiring enough contact tracers to get the job done. “The US currently has a fraction of the workers necessary for effective contact tracing. Additional federal funding is desperately needed to expand these programs to the extent they are needed, which is currently being debated in the latest COVID-19 stimulus bill,” Waters says. 

How Can Contact Tracing Help Reopen Schools? 

One particularly difficult aspect of incorporating contact tracing in schools is the fact that many kids who test positive for COVID-19 remain asymptomatic. This presents an immense challenge when it comes to determining whom to test, when, and how often.

However, with the right plan in place, particularly when combined with widespread testing, contact tracing is our best hope if we want our nation’s students back in school full-time. There are three main ways contact tracing can benefit schools, according to Waters. 

  • Contact tracing can help control the virus without resorting to extreme measures like lockdowns
  • A contact tracing program allows public health workers to quickly identify recent close contacts of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 so that those most likely to spread the virus within the school can quickly quarantine.
  • An in-house contact tracing program at schools can increase confidence amongst parents and students that school administrators take COVID-19 seriously and are taking action to make the environment as safe as possible.

What This Means for You

Even though it’s time for students to go back to school, the US isn’t yet at a point where it’s safe to allow a full return to in-person instruction. As the study showed, the chances of a second wave of virus activity would be very high, and learning would be continuously disrupted by repeated periods of quarantine for large groups of students.

An effective system of testing and tracing could reduce the spread of COVID and allow students to return to school more quickly. 

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Article Sources
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  1. Panovska-Griffiths J, Kerr C, Stuart R et al. Determining the optimal strategy for reopening schools, the impact of test and trace interventions, and the risk of occurrence of a second COVID-19 epidemic wave in the UK: a modelling studyLancet Child Adolesc Health. 2020. doi:10.1016/s2352-4642(20)30250-9

  2. Business Insider. US coronavirus testing has dropped dramatically: a 13% decrease in 2 weeks. Public-health experts say the system is broken. Updated August 13, 2020.