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Why contact tracing is so important during COVID-19

Health Technical Lead Dr Lisa Natoli and National Resilience Advisor John Richardson look at contact tracing and why tracking down and containing outbreaks of the virus could help life go back to normal more quickly.

At Red Cross we are responding to the challenges COVID-19 presents, from supporting people in isolation, to advocating for the needs of people hit by the economic hardships. Thousands of our volunteers here and millions across the globe are responding to the challenge.

Working to support people during this pandemic, we see that the best way to stop the harm being done to individuals and our communities by the virus is by preventing its spread.

As we watch the number of COVID-19 cases climb so quickly in many parts of the world, you realise how quickly this virus spreads. In fact without action, each person will pass the infection to two to three others, and then each of those will do the same.

We can all appreciate that once someone is confirmed as having COVID-19, the sooner we find out who they have been in contact with, the better. This is really important to slow onward transmission of the virus, and continue to flatten the curve.

Stopping the spread through contact tracing

Thousands of public health officials around the country- known as ‘Contact Tracers’ - have been busily working to follow up those who have been in close contact with anyone who has tested positive for the virus when they were infectious.

This is done so that contacts can go into quarantine - and so prevent further spread of the infection in case they too become unwell. This could save the life of  an elderly relative or someone else who is at risk of serious illness. Contact tracing is time consuming work!

Have a think back over the last 14 days. Could you list every person you have interacted with in that time?

Even in our current day life where there are many restrictions on our interactions and most of us are not straying far from home, this requires a fair bit of brain power. When restrictions on our movements do ease and we start to interact more, it will be even harder to keep track of this information.

The Chief Health Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy has said publicly one of the criteria that needs to be in place before easing of restrictions- is the ability to rapidly trace contacts when someone tests positive for COVID-19. 

To make it easier for public health officers to trace people who may have been exposed to the virus, there are a few things that you can do. 

Ways to speed up contract tracing

The Australian Government has released the COVIDSafe app as a way of using our smart phones to keep track of contacts with other people; if we happen to interact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 (who also has the app), our contact details are available to streamline contact tracing so we can be notified more quickly.

Being cautious about your personal data and how information from your smart phone could be used in this digital age is warranted.

It is voluntary to use the COVIDSafe app but to be effective the app does need 40% of the population to sign up for it. Millions of Australians have downloaded the app so far, including many of us at Australian Red Cross.  

It may reassure you to know that Australia’s Human Rights Commission supports the introduction of the app as a public health tool, but knowing that you and your loved ones could be notified more quickly of potential exposure to the virus can bring additional reassurance as we navigate the unpredictability of this situation as a community. 

If you have been thinking about doing it and just haven’t got around to it, now’s the time! Alternatively, if you don’t have access to a phone, or feel uncomfortable in using a phone or downloading the app, you can always keep a brief diary of where you’ve been and who you’ve been in contact with. This can serve as a memory jogger in case you do need to recall your steps and who you met. 

As members of a global organisation, we are connected to colleagues in Red Cross Societies around the world. For months now we have followed their horrific experiences, witnessed their extraordinary bravery as frontline volunteers, and tried to support from afar. We feel incredibly fortunate that until now, Australia has so far been spared the tragedy that is impacting so many countries around the world. As a nation we have ‘flattened the curve’, but we must not be complacent and need to do all we can to keep it that way. 

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