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What American Travelers Need to Know About Contact Tracing

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Contact tracing is essential to preventing coronavirus outbreaks.

If you plan to travel within the U.S. or outside the country in the coming months, you should be aware of a long-standing trend in tracking those with infectious diseases: contact tracing.

In the context of 2020, simply put, contact tracing is the process of communicating with an individual who tests positive for the coronavirus and the people that person has potentially been in contact with. Health departments have harnessed this confidential protocol for decades to help stop the spread of infectious diseases and avoid outbreaks.

To put one state under the microscope, California has hired 10,600 state and local staff for contact tracing efforts, and “skills-based training is provided to all contact tracers who work for the statewide program,” according to a statement provided by the California Department of Public Health.

Revealing details to these contact tracers is voluntary, but the CDPH notes: “No one is required to speak to a contact tracer or provide information, but the more people answer the call, the more lives and jobs California saves.”

The health department will instruct those in contact with an infected person to quarantine for 14 days while also checking in with them via phone or text to see if they are showing any symptoms.

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Visitors to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park in New Yorkrblfmr / Shutterstock

Close contacts to an infected individual are defined by the CDC as “anyone who was within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before the person began feeling sick until the time the patient was isolated.” The CDC says it doesn’t matter if any of the people involved are wearing masks or not.

The CDC adds, “A negative result before the end of the 14-day quarantine period does not rule out possible infection. By self-quarantining for 14 days, you lower the chance of possibly exposing others to COVID-19.”

Contact tracers are not just interested in close contacts but also proximate contacts, says Emily Gurley, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. “Proximate contacts may relate more to those who travel, because those are defined as people who may be more than six feet away from you but you’re in an enclosed space with them such as an airplane or train car for at least an hour.”

If you decide to travel by air, for example, and someone on your flight has been found to have contracted the virus, you might get a call from a health department to monitor symptoms and quarantine. So, traveling by any method other than car carries with it the responsibility to follow guidelines laid out by those contact tracers, even if you aren’t showing symptoms and were tested weeks ago and the tests came back negative.

Being tight-lipped about your whereabouts will only hinder efforts to prevent future outbreaks.

If you’re found to test positive and you get a phone call from a health department’s contact tracer, you should be upfront about your recent contacts and places you’ve visited, experts say. It helps to write down all the spots you checked out as a traveler, from cafes to gas stops to hotels.

Being tight-lipped about your whereabouts will only hinder efforts to prevent future outbreaks.

“When we deal with issues of non-compliance, of people not wanting to share their contacts or refusing to quarantine, we try to educate them about the virus,” says Gema Morales-Meyer, the director of clinic services at the Los Angeles County Public Health Department. “We are also telling them right away about our credentials and how this isn’t any kind of scam to get their private information, and that all their private details will remain anonymous.”

If you visit a major attraction such as Disney World, you might not get a personal phone call if someone visiting the park at the same time as you had the virus. Tracing every single person in such a crowded place isn’t feasible, Gurley says, so rather than a phone call, Disney World may place a notice on their website and physical space indicating when and where that infected person visited the park.

Gurley reminds us, “Remember, you likely won’t get COVID-19 by just passing by someone on the street. You have to be around them for around 15 minutes.”

One quick addendum for Americans traveling out-of-state to another region: Gurley says that if you test positive in the state you’re visiting, then you’ll have to quarantine in that area for 14 days from the day you arrive, even if your vacation plans call for a departure earlier than that. Health departments may help you find quarantine-friendly housing if, for example, you need to separate from those you’re visiting or you can’t extend your hotel stay.

Two women walking by the beach wearing protective or medical face masks in Punta Umbria, Spainagsaz / Shutterstock

Jackie Bray, deputy executive director of the NYC Test and Trace Corps, told CNBC that tracers in New York are trained to inform contacts about free meal delivery while they’re isolating and help provide financial counseling if they’re unable to work from home.

“It’s testing, tracing, and isolating, or testing, tracing and, what we call here in New York, safely separating,” she told reporters. “They come as a package.”

Contact tracing may get some help with apps focused on identifying positive cases. While these apps, often developed via a Google-Apple partnership, don’t replace the manual process of contact tracers tracking cases, they can provide the public with details about cases they have been in contact with within their own city or elsewhere.

Countries such as South Korea, Switzerland, and Canada have released country-wide apps that intend to let people know if they have been within six feet of a positive case, as long as that positive case has notified the app about their coronavirus contraction.

In Canada, the COVID Alert app uses Bluetooth technology to notify other users who may have been in close contact with that person for at least 15 minutes in the past 14 days so they can contact their local public health authority for guidance. It will even work on flights, as long as the Bluetooth setting is turned on.

The U.S. hasn’t rolled out any coordinated national app, but individual states, such as Virginia, have launched exposure-notification apps for their residents.

There is talk about a coordinated app and website collating information of infected airline passengers and their contacts, that would then be passed along to the CDC, but there isn’t any launch date announced yet. In February, the CDC issued an internal final rule that “aimed to require airlines to collect five contact data elements from international passengers and electronically submit them to Customs and Border Protection to facilitate contact tracing. That has not been enforced.”

To avoid all this hassle in the first place, be careful about where you travel in the coming months, advises Gurley. “Looking at the number of new cases could be a good indicator of COVID-19 hotspots to avoid. Do some research. And if you’re traveling to another country, be aware that not every place has the infrastructure and resource for widespread testing, so it can be risky to head to lower-income countries where testing and surveillance data isn’t very robust.”