Contact tracing helped end the Ebola outbreak. Public health experts say it can stop COVID-19, too.

Contact tracing helped end the Ebola outbreak. Public health experts say it can stop COVID-19, too.

A public health expert who led the fight against the Ebola outbreak in Liberia says the United States is downplaying one strategy key to stopping the coronavirus pandemic: contact tracing.

Tolbert Nyenswah, senior research associate at the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, thinks successful contact tracing could reopen the country within two to three months.

“By now, 100% of all people coming in contact with COVID-19 patients must be traced,” he said. “Even one missed contact can keep the outbreak going on and on and on.”

According to a report released last week by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the nation needs a new workforce of 100,000 contact tracers. At that scale, the effort would require $3.6 billion, researchers projected. They called for an infusion of emergency funding from Congress.

Their estimates are based on what has worked in other countries. In the Wuhan, China region where the outbreak started, 9,000 contact tracers were rapidly deployed to curb the spread in thecity of 11 million.

The World Health Organization breaks down contact tracing into three basic steps: identification, listing and follow-up.

Once a patient tests positive for the virus, contacts are identified by asking who the patient came in contact with, such as family members, colleagues, friends or health care providers. Then tracers attempt to identify and reach out to all those who came into contact with the COVID-19 positive patient. Regular follow-ups should be conducted with all contacts to monitor for symptoms.

Even with U.S. cases surpassing 630,000 as of Friday afternoon, Nyenswah thinks contact tracing down to the last household is still possible.

“For us to get ahead of the curve, for us to flatten the curve, for us to bend the curve, to stop the outbreak … contact tracing, contact tracing, contact tracing,” said Nyenswah, recounting the extreme efforts of trackers in rural Africa compared to a first-world nation like the U.S.

“It’s cumbersome, it’s painstaking, it might take a long time to do it," he added. "It can be done."

Not everyone agrees so wholeheartedly. Matthew Fox, professor of epidemiology and global health at Boston University, is in favor of contact tracing, but doesn’t thinkthe U.S. can get down to zero cases before a vaccine is available in the next few years.

“I think it’s being downplayed in the media but I don’t think it’s going to be the solution to all our problems,” he said. “We think coronavirus is far more transmissible. Ebola you need to come in contact with bodily fluids … droplet transmission is so much harder.”

Tech giants:Apple and Google team up on coronavirus tracking technology

Trump wants to reopen America:Federal health officials warn the bar to do so safely may be too high

However, Fox said contact tracing plays an important part in a broader strategy incorporating other public health measures to minimize transmission. Although it won’t make much of an impact now as cases in the country continue to climb, he said it’s important to start scaling up contact tracing for when cases numbers become more manageable.

John Welch, Director of Partnerships & Operations for Massachusetts COVID Response for Public in Health, is hiring about 900 contact tracers for the state.

Public in Health – a nonprofit global health organization – estimates those people will make about 80,000 to 100,000 calls a week working 12 hours a day for all seven days. Welch said contact tracers will not only be keeping track of contacts, but will be redirecting patients in need to the proper resources for testing or treatment.

Welch has seen these efforts work firsthand in Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic. He choked up remembering when he couldn’t imagine a day the outbreak would end.

“I wept when it was over because you can’t imagine sitting in the middle of it looking around and thinking, ‘When does it end?’” he said. “But it ends by doing this stuff.”

Contributing: Letitia Stein and Brett Murphy, USA TODAY. Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.


News Related


Trump’s ‘mission accomplished’ moment is premature and deadly. We have not defeated COVID.

Desperate for crowds and adoration, Trump has put his most fervent supporters at risk of getting a deadly disease. Future historians will be astonished. Read more »

NFLPA president JC Tretter says NFL is putting season, players at risk with its coronavirus approach

NFL Players Association president JC Tretter said Tuesday the NFL is putting the 2020 season at risk with its coronavirus approach, calling on the league to better “prioritize player safety.” “Like many other... Read more »

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro says he tested positive for the coronavirus

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro says he has tested positive for COVID-19 after months of downplaying the virus’ severity. Bolsonaro confirmed the test results while wearing a mask and... Read more »

Venice Film Festival forges ahead amid COVID-19 pandemic with reduced lineup

The show will go on for the Venice Film Festival in September, but with a few modifications due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers said Tuesday that they are pushing forward with plans for... Read more »

Amtrak offers buy-one, get-one promotion on its sleeper trains amid COVID-19 — with a catch

Amtrak wants you to have sweet dreams the next time you travel — so much so that it’s sweetening the deal on its sleeper “roomettes.” The rail service is offering a buy-one-get-one-free discount... Read more »

Florida teen treated with hydroxychloroquine at home before dying of COVID-19, report says

FORT MEYERS, Fla. – The family of a 17-year-old Florida girl who died last month from COVID-19 treated her symptoms at home for nearly a week before taking her to a hospital, a... Read more »

Mookie Betts worried MLB coronavirus testing woes could prevent him from ever playing for Dodgers

During nearly four months away from the game, Mookie Betts said he “stayed away from baseball to keep myself sane.” It’s not hard to understand why. The 2018 American League Most Valuable Player... Read more »

Tom Hanks doesn’t get ‘how common sense has somehow been put into question’ with coronavirus

Read more »

Can Gov. DeSantis force Florida schools to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic? Some school leaders seem doubtful.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — As concern about the state order spread online, some school leaders said: Not so fast. As Florida educators puzzle over how to start the new academic year, Gov. Ron... Read more »

Texas surpasses 200,000 coronavirus cases after 4th of July holiday weekend

AUSTIN, Texas – Texas reached 200,000 total COVID-19 cases Monday, just 17 days after crossing the 100,000 threshold, a figure that took the state nearly four months to hit. The grim milestone came... Read more »