As states across the U.S. and provinces in Canada track COVID-19 cases and positive test rates to monitor the ongoing pandemic, there’s been more discussion about a potentially complicated concept – contact tracing. In this article, we’ll take a look at what contact tracing is and the roles employers and workers may be expected to play.
Understanding Contact Tracing
Contact tracing has traditionally been done by agencies like the CDC or local health departments. It’s a process used to identify, educate and monitor people who have had close contact with an infected person. Health professionals interview infected people and ask them to remember everyone they had contact with while they were infectious, then alert those contacts of their increased risk for infection. Contact tracing is similar to someone exploring their family tree to learn more about their ancestry, except in this case, health professionals are using that tree to track coronavirus from person to person.
Contact tracing has many potential benefits:
- Educating infected people about what steps to take to avoid spreading the virus
- Helping exposed contacts separate themselves from others to stop the spread of the virus
- Linking infected and exposed people with community resources during quarantine or self-isolation
However, contact tracing does have some limitations:
- Does not stop all asymptomatic spread, since interviews happen after symptoms appear
- Must be done quickly to be effective
- Has the potential to create privacy and confidentiality issues if not handled correctly
How Workers Can Assist Contact Tracing Efforts
Despite these limitations, contact tracing can be a valuable tool to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Workers should be aware that the intention isn’t to interrogate or pass judgment – it’s to collect information to keep all workers safe. All data collected during this process must be kept confidential and only used to track COVID-19 cases and monitor risk in the workplace.
“The health of LIUNA members is of the utmost importance, so workers should do their part by cooperating with contact tracing efforts to the best of their ability,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “However, members’ privacy must also be maintained. Workers should be encouraged to ask questions if they are unsure how their information will be used.”
How Employers Can Assist Contact Tracing Efforts
While contact tracing is primarily the responsibility of public health agencies, employers can play a valuable role in this process. Employers can start by following these best practices:
- Maintain attendance records, including employees’ scheduled shifts.
- On construction jobsites, keep track of all workers, vendors, subcontractors and visitors who enter the site. Take the extra step of keeping track of workers within specific areas, groups of workers who work together on a specific task or workers who are in close contact (within six feet) for a prolonged period of time (15 minutes).
- For office environments, maintain records of a floor plan or seating chart.
In addition to these best practices, employers can support contact tracing efforts by following the steps below. For more details on how to implement these steps, see the LHSFNA’s Guidance to Assist Employers with COVID-19 Contact Tracing on our Coronavirus and COVID-19 Resources page.
Step 1: Designate a Team
Choose an employee or group of employees who will work closely with public health agencies, interview employees and notify affected contacts.
Step 2: Identify and Interview Symptomatic Employees
Interview the symptomatic employee as soon as possible after they are identified. Interviewers should ask for the names of all employees, visitors or vendors they had close contact with in the workplace starting from 48 hours before symptoms appeared through the time of the interview.
Step 3: Notify Employees Who May Have Been Exposed
Employees identified in Step 2 are informed they had contact with a person in the workplace who is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19. To maintain confidentiality, they are not provided with the name of the employee. Contacts are also given guidelines for self-quarantine, told to contact their healthcare provider if they experience COVID-19 symptoms and given the chance to ask questions.
For more details on the process of contact tracing, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) offers a free, introductory self-paced online course, Making Contact: A Training for COVID-19 Contact Tracers. For more information on screening and how workers can safely return to work following self-isolation or self-quarantine, see the LHSFNA’s Guidance on Conducting Workplace COVID-19 Screenings and Assessments.