By Annette Pinder

As New York state begins to enter phases where people begin to eat at restaurants, work in offices, and use public transportation, calls from contact tracers will become more frequent. A call might sound something like, “Hi, I’m calling from the health department, and need to inform you that you were in close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Is now a safe time to talk?”

Used successfully since the 1930s to combat infectious disease outbreaks across the globe, contact tracing works by tracking down all of the contacts of an infected person and taking action to break the chain of transmission. The process has been particularly challenging during this pandemic because COVID-19 patients can be contagious a few days prior to experiencing symptoms, and some people never experience symptoms. Additionally, the time between onset of symptoms is estimated to be about four days. Because COVID-19 progresses so rapidly, tracers must also act quickly to reach patients and their contacts to prevent or limit the spread of the virus.

Many believe that contact tracers are the key to opening the economy safely. Others believe that we should do away with all social distancing measures and let the virus run its course. Dr. Crystal Watson, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says neither of these is a real option. She says, “We have this tool — contact tracing — and if we spend some effort and funding on actually building up our capacities, we can control transmission, get back to work much more safely, and avoid unnecessary loss of thousands of lives.”

When a patient gets a coronavirus test, the lab reports the results to the patient’s doctor and the local health department. A contact tracer gets assigned to the case, calls the person to ask about their symptoms, and learns who the patient has been in close contact with recently. Together, the tracer and patient develop a plan for isolation, including how to get the patient’s groceries and medications delivered. While patients are told when they were exposed, information about who exposed them is confidential.

Patients testing positive are isolated for a period of 10 days since their symptoms first appeared. They must report having three full days without a fever, as well as improved symptoms before ending isolation. Close contacts exposed to the virus are told to quarantine for 14 days after the date of their last exposure. Thereafter, the health department staff call regularly to monitor patients’ symptoms as well as quarantined contacts to determine their ability to leave home safely.


If you are interested in becoming a contact tracer, you will need to take a free online course. To apply to become a contact tracer visit