Contact tracing is key to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and helps keep you safe. Contact tracing is used by health departments to prevent the spread of infectious disease.
Typically, contact tracing involves health department staff interviewing people that tested positive for COVID-19 to identify people they had contact with while infected. Those contacts are then notified of their potential exposure and are encouraged to get tested. Self-monitoring, isolating, or quarantining for signs and symptoms is very important.
With a significant percent of our community doing the right thing with social distancing and masking, some wonder at what point do you need to worry about distant connections to someone with COVID-19? Clearly, if someone you have interacted with tells you he or she has tested positive, you should get a test, self-monitor, separate from others, and notify anyone you may have seen since that time.
But how many degrees of separation does one need to have from COVID-19? Now more than ever, the phrase six degrees of separation seems applicable. What should people do about secondary or more distant contacts? For example, you have come in casual distanced contact with someone that had a very brief encounter with someone that tested positive and both were masked.
A report from the New Jersey Department of Health outlines how one might think about this. If person A is diagnosed with COVID-19, person B with close contact will be considered medium risk and should get tested, remain home, practice social distancing and monitor for symptoms. If person B only had a fleeting contact with person A, person B would be considered low risk and precautions such as hand washing, social distancing, and self-monitoring should suffice. Self-monitoring includes taking your temperature, watching for symptoms, social distancing and avoiding close contact with others. As long as person B remains healthy, if person C is a friend and has not come in contact with person A, this would be in the very low risk category.
The question people often ask is what is considered to be close contacts? Close contacts are individuals who were within six feet of a confirmed COVID-19 case for a prolonged period of time (approximately 10 minutes or more) or had direct contact with the infectious secretions of a COVID-19 case (e.g., were coughed on). Casual contacts are defined as being in the same environment (e.g., classroom, office, gatherings) with a symptomatic confirmed COVID-19 case.
If someone that does not have COVID-19 notifies you that they had an interaction with someone that has tested positive, it is not only OK, it is important to ask them more about that contact. If they tell you they both had masks on and were socially distanced and only spoke for a minute or two, your reaction or next steps might be different than if they tell you they spent an evening watching TV next to each other on the couch. A good rule of thumb it is better to be cautious, than sorry.