Contact tracing may look different since the start of the pandemic, but it’s still useful: NPR

NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks to Lorna Thorpe, director of epidemiology at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, about the pros and cons of contact tracing in this pandemic phase.


Do you remember the contact tracing efforts at the start of the pandemic? States hired thousands of public health workers, so that whenever a positive test came in, they could trace that person’s steps and call all close contacts within hours. Well, the explosion of cases during delta and omicron waves has made that much more complicated to do.

But some public health officials say it’s still worth a try, like Lorna Thorpe. She is director of epidemiology at New York University. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LORNA THORPE: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

SHAPIRO: Last spring, NPR surveyed health departments and found that most of them were cutting back on contact tracing. Today, are most of the efforts made a year or two ago still ongoing, or have some states and cities given up?

THORPE: I think a lot of states are thinking about how to do contact tracing in the context of widespread transmission and a large number of cases. So it varies across the country, but some are changing tactics in how they notify cases and what support services they offer to those cases. They are also sharing information through electronic means, perhaps, without – instead of using the phone to contact them as the number of cases and the ability to reach everyone individually becomes increasingly difficult.

SHAPIRO: There seem to be pros and cons to both. I mean, it can be hard to reach people on the phone, but I’ve heard many people during the omicron wave say that the automatic alerts became so constant that they deleted the alerts from their phone.

THORPE: The role of these email alerts and the role of contact tracing in general is to provide support services that help people stop the spread of the virus, and that’s a challenge. We all know that when you receive a number of alerts, your attention to those alerts is reduced. But if you’ve recently had a contact and need to know where to get tested, it’s important to spread that information.

SHAPIRO: So take a step back and tell us over the past two years what general lessons you’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t in contact tracing, what’s worth the investment and what who is not .

THORPE: I think what we’ve learned is that contact tracing is often so much more than contact tracing. It’s really a range of services that help people get tested, help people get notified, and help people get the services they need while in isolation.

SHAPIRO: So you’re saying that contact tracing really needs to be integrated into the broader set of public health resources.

THORPE: Right. And, you know, here in New York they call it the Test & Trace program, but there are really three Ts – test, trace and care. And I think that’s something we have to learn to do better.

SHAPIRO: Do you think there’s a point where community transmission becomes so prevalent that contact tracing stops being useful? When we look at the numbers in early January in cities like Washington, DC and New York, I mean, at that time, is it even worth saying that you came into close contact with someone who had omicron? – Because it seems like everyone else did.

THORPE: Contact tracing, I think, is a tool that works for diseases that have certain criteria. We do not use contact tracing for influenza. We do not use contact tracing for a number of other infectious diseases. But we use contact tracing when the clinical findings are severe enough and when we have proven tools to stop transmission.

So ultimately, as we learned in January, contact tracing had to pivot. There was no way we could continue to do contact tracing the way we did, and I think we can actually get to a state where we don’t need contact tracing anymore. But it depends on the severity of the disease and other factors, such as the number of cases.

SHAPIRO: This is Professor Lorna Thorpe, director of epidemiology at NYU. She is evaluating New York City’s contact tracing efforts. Thanks a lot.

THORPE: Thank you very much.

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