Understanding COVID-19 contact tracing.

You’ve most likely heard the term before, but what really is contact tracing? Does it really help in the fight against COVID-19?

Contact tracing, in short, helps identify, notify, and monitor anyone who has come in close contact with an individual who has tested positive for the coronavirus. To develop the needed technology to help track exposure and alert individuals who might have been exposed, two of the world’s most recognizable companies accepted the challenge – Apple and Google.  

Using exposure notifications on mobile devices, the companies found a way to alert people if they had encountered someone later diagnosed with COVID-19. According to a recent article published by the Washington Post, 150 million Americans across 20 states and territories have the ability to get these pop-up notifications – all it takes is some finessing to your phone settings.

Now back to the question of whether or not this process actually works in slowing the spread of the disease. For contact tracing to be successful, people need to sign up for these notifications, regardless of if they’ve tested positive for the virus. If we look to Ireland, according to an article by MIT Technology Review, a third of the country’s adult population has actively used the government’s contact tracing app. Between mid-July and mid-October 2020, users uploaded 3,000 positive results, representing around 11% of confirmed cases in Ireland. It’s also important to consider that in October, Ireland became the first country in Europe to reimpose a lockdown, with rates of new cases per capita dropping almost immediately after it went into effect.

However, while app participation could potentially curtail infections, MIT Technology Review also reported that a recent Pew survey found that 40% of American adults are unlikely to even talk with manual contact tracers. Despite exposure notifications claiming to collect information anonymously, there are clearly ongoing privacy concerns, which would make individuals think twice about enabling such features on a device they use every day.

Contact tracing is a controversial topic that’s part of the everyday COVID-19 news cycle. The key is understanding how it works and, if you’re able, how you can possibly help. To learn more about the process, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website for the latest updates.

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