Contact Tracing Efforts Hit an Obstacle: Mistrust and Information Withholding

Contact tracing has become one of the key tools to track and fight the spread of the coronavirus. While there are thousands of contact tracers working to follow the path of the virus, there are not nearly enough—and many are finding that people are uncooperative.

Contact tracing is a common and widely researched way of fighting the spread of infectious diseases. It has been used to fight the outbreak of Ebola, and now it is a tool to tackle the coronavirus.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, governments, organizations big and small, employers, schools and communities have been trying to learn about and incorporate contact tracing into their systems. Countries across the globe have been working to utilize this tool.

How does it work? Check out this YouTube video:

However, one NPR article explains that contact tracing in the U.S. is not going so well. To start, over 5 million Americans have been infected with the virus, and the U.S. has at least 41,122 contact tracers—but that is not even half of what public health experts say is needed to contain the virus.

The role of the contact tracer is to call each person who has tested positive and track down their contacts to inform them of their risk so they can quarantine. They often can also give people services so they can safely isolate.

Contact tracing groups are already short-staffed, but they are also finding that people are not cooperating or providing information.

Some companies are causing issues, the article explains. One Los Angeles company reportedly told its workers that if they cooperate with public health officials that they will be terminated.

Elya Franciscus, an epidemiologist with Harris County Public Health in Houston, and Michael Osur, assistant director and chief health strategist of the Riverside County Department of Public Health, shared their experiences.

Many individuals are not willing to share the names of people they have seen at gatherings or the public places they have been with the public health officials. “They’re willing to tell us about their family contacts, who lives in the house. But they're not willing to share their friends, who they saw, the stores they went to. And that's been a huge problem because much of our spread has been through those informal barbecues, get-togethers and other places these people have been that we are having a hard time tracking down,” said Osur.

Franciscus suspects that people are especially unwilling to provide the names of bars or public places they have been to because they are afraid those places will get shut down.

She also said that in her county, about 50 percent of people are very cooperative. Another 25 percent are semi-cooperative and the other 25 percent are absolutely unwilling to share any information.

Unfortunately, many individuals think contact tracers have malicious or unethical intentions, and myths about contact tracers have caused mistrust. Contact tracers have received verbal threats, been cursed at and called names, and some people even think tracers are “being paid to make up results.”

Despite some public skepticism about it, contact tracing is essential to tracking the spread of the virus and alerting others at risk. Contact tracing is an effective way to keep the virus at bay in the workplace, schools and other communities.

Contact tracers need public support from officials, experts and leaders to gain widespread, public trust. Right now, though, the U.S. is far from that reality.

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