Until a COVID-19 vaccine or preventive treatment is available, management of the COVID-19 pandemic will rely on a tried and true public health measure called contact tracing to keep you, your family, and your community safe. This method has been employed successfully for decades by the Illinois Department of Public Health and local health departments to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, such as vaccine preventable diseases, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and sexually transmitted infections. Contact tracing for COVID-19 is a bit different because it needs to be executed on a significantly larger scale, adapting to unique challenges of the virus, including its spread by people without symptoms.
In general, contact tracing involves identifying people who have an infectious disease (cases) and people who they came in contact with (contacts) and working with them to stop the spread of the disease. This includes asking people with COVID-19 to isolate and their contacts to quarantine at home voluntarily.
Contact tracing for COVID-19 typically involves
- Interviewing people with COVID-19 to identify everyone they had close contact with during the time they may have been infectious.
- Notifying contacts of their potential exposure.
- Referring contacts for testing.
- Monitoring contacts for signs and symptoms of COVID-19.
- Connecting contacts with services they might need so they can remain at home during the self-quarantine period.
To prevent the further spread of disease, people who had contact with someone with COVID-19 are encouraged to stay home and maintain social distance (at least 6 feet) from others until 14 days after their last exposure to a person with COVID-19. Contacts should monitor themselves by checking their temperature twice daily and watching for COVID-19 symptoms, such as cough or shortness of breath.
Contact tracing steps
Generally, contact tracing includes the following steps:
- Case investigation: Local public health department staff work with a patient to help them recall everyone they have had close contact with during the time they may have been infectious.
- Contact tracing: Local public health department staff begin contact tracing by notifying exposed people (contacts) of their potential exposure as rapidly and sensitively as possible, not revealing the infected patient’s identity.
- Contact support: Contacts are provided with education, information, and support to help them understand their risk, what they should do to separate themselves from others who are not exposed, and how to monitor themselves for illness. In addition, they are informed of the possibility that they could spread the infection to others even if they do not feel ill.
- Self-quarantine: Contacts are encouraged to stay home, monitor their health, and maintain social distance (at least 6 feet) from others until 14 days after their last exposure to the infected patient in case they also become ill.
What a person diagnosed with COVID-19 can expect to happen during contact tracing
If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, a local health department worker may call you to check-in on your health, discuss who you’ve been in contact with, and ask where you spent time while you may have been infectious and able to spread COVID-19 to others. You also will be asked to stay at home and self-isolate, if you are not doing so already.
- Your name will not be revealed to those you may have exposed, even if they ask, unless you explicitly give permission.
- Self-isolation means staying at home in a specific room away from other people and pets and using a separate bathroom, if possible.
- Self-isolation helps slow the spread of COVID-19 and can help keep your family, friends, neighbors, and others you may come in contact with healthy.
- If you need support or assistance while self-isolating, your health department or community organizations may be able to provide assistance.
- Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea. If your symptoms worsen or become severe, you should seek medical care. Severe symptoms include trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or bluish lips or face.
What a close contact can expect to happen during contact tracing
If you have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, you could be contacted and informed by a local health department worker that you have been exposed to COVID-19.
You should stay at home and self-quarantine for 14 days, starting from the last day you were possibly exposed to COVID-19. The local health department worker will help identify the dates of your self-quarantine. They also can provide resources about COVID-19 testing in your area.
- Self-quarantine means staying home, monitoring your health, and maintaining social distancing (at least 6 feet) from others at all times.
- If you need to be around other people or animals in or outside of the home, wear a cloth face covering. This will help protect the people around you.
- If you need support or assistance with self-quarantine, your local health department or community organizations may be able to provide assistance.
You should take your temperature twice a day, watch for symptoms of COVID-19, and notify your local health department if you have symptoms. You also should notify people you had close contact with recently if you become ill, so they can monitor their health. If your symptoms worsen or become severe, you should seek medical care. Severe symptoms include trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or bluish lips or face.