FOX 5 uncovers how contact tracing works as DC expands program

D.C. announced Wednesday it will hire hundreds of people to work as contact tracers for the coronavirus and there are estimates that nationwide, a few hundred thousand people could be needed to do this work.

Contact tracing for infectious diseases is nothing new and is most commonly used for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

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Malachi Stewart was doing contact tracing in D.C. long before the coronavirus.

The process is nothing like you’d see in a blockbuster spy film. Stewart said when D.C. Health finds out about a positive COVID-19 test, an interview is conducted with the patient by phone.

“Our goal right now is to reach out to every positive case or exposure within the first 24 hours,” Stewart said.

The person is asked to identify all the people they may have exposed and ideally provide names and phone numbers.

“I guess because I do a lot of contact tracing around sexual transmitted infections or diseases, a lot of times people don’t always know who they may have met at a bar. Or they may just have a username from an online exchange. So that’s the job of the investigator, I have to take a little bit of information and be able to sort of find you,” said Stewart.

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

But here’s where it’s tricky: he can’t tell people he’s calling who exposed them or give specific details about the encounter that could potentially identify the patient.

“I haven't experienced anyone getting frustrated because they want more information, and to be honest, the reason for that is a lot of people are already being transparent,” he said. “A lot of people, you contact them, they already know. They’re like, ‘Oh my coworker told me or my friend told me that he tested positive, I was waiting for on your call.’”

He answers peoples questions and lets them know if they should self-quarantine.

RELATED: DC, Maryland and Virginia coronavirus case totals

Some countries are using smartphone technology to track exactly where people have been and notify those who were around them. But here in the US, some are skeptical of that digital surveillance. Apple and Google are rolling out new programs you can choose to use, that could help health departments with their tedious work.

Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the District had established a team of 65 people to do coronavirus contact tracing, and on Wednesday she announced that it would be expanding to 200.

Ultimately, D.C. may require a force of 900 contact tracers to track the virus.

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