The plan to stop the spread of COVID-19 has many parts. You can probably recite most of them by heart by now. You know to social distance, wear a mask, get tested if you have symptoms and get a vaccination as soon as you are able. But there is one very important part of the plan many might not know about: contact tracing.
“Basically, to get a handle on this pandemic, we need a combination of testing, contact tracing and vaccination,” said Sharon Talboys, Ph.D., MPH, from the Division of Public Health. “It’s going to take all three of those things to end this pandemic.”
Currently the University of Utah has a team of about 30 people conducting contact tracing among the more than 60,000 students, faculty and staff on campus. As you can imagine, this is no small job. When the report of a positive case comes in, the team reaches out to that person and then works with them to determine who they might have been in close contact with during their infectious period. That’s the period of time 48 hours before their first symptoms or before their positive result if they are asymptomatic. The team then reaches out to those close contacts to inform them of their possible exposure and to advise them to quarantine.
Of course, in some cases it’s not a single person who tests positive. It’s a bunch of them. These are called clusters. In these cases, the contact tracers look at things like class lists, athletic rosters, club memberships and residence listings to determine who could have been exposed. They then notify all of those people of the potential exposure to hopefully stop the spread.
With either scenario—an individual or a cluster trace—you can play an important part in helping the team. It’s easy. Answer your phone. No, none of us like to answer calls from unknown numbers, but we all know the prefixes used by the university (213, 581, 585, 587, 646). If you see one come up, then answer it.
“We also text people. If we don’t reach them by phone, we will text them,” said Talboys. “Respond to the text if you see that. And then basically if you’re called by a contact tracer, because you’ve been exposed, go ahead and be forthcoming with information.”
Yes, a call from a contract tracer may result in you having to quarantine. Currently the recommended quarantine time is 14 days. It can be reduced to 10 days in cases where the longer period poses a hardship, and if the person is willing to enroll in an active monitoring program. But don’t let the fear of a possible quarantine color how you answer the questions from the contact tracer.
“Our contact tracers are just there to help. Nobody wants to put anybody in quarantine,” said Talboys. “But the only way we’re going to tamp this down is if we can get accurate information. We’re asking people to comply because that’s our best hope right now until we have wide-scale vaccine coverage.”
Working together we can defeat this virus, and move back to a semblance of normality. But we all have to do our part. Our testing teams are monitoring those coming to campus. Our vaccination teams are getting as many people protected as possible as quickly as possible. And our contact tracing teams are tracking the potential exposures to stop COVID-19 from spreading any further. As a campus community, we need to support them all.
We are all one U.