Faculty News

How Contact Tracing Contains the Spread of COVID -19 on Campus

Mitigation measures have been important components of the University of Michigan’s public health-informed fall semester. One of the measures the university relies on to help identify potential cases and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission is contact tracing. This process can help prevent further transmission of the virus by quickly identifying and informing people who may be infected and contagious of their need to quarantine.

“Contract tracing is an important public health function because it helps contain the spread of disease. We want to identify and reach close contacts as early in their exposure as we can,” said Angela Beck, associate dean for student engagement and practice and clinical assistant professor at the U-M School of Public Health.

Public health officials want to identify close contacts early in their exposure to implement self-quarantining, which can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19, should they develop the infection. The process is also used to assess symptoms, living environment, and resource needs of the close contact.

“Contact tracing is our best option for containing the spread of COVID-19 within our campus community because it works to stop disease transmission as early in the chain as possible,” Beck said.

U-M’s Environment, Health & Safety office partners with the Washtenaw County Health Department to conduct case investigation and contact tracing. EHS learns of positive cases through a surveillance system and begins an investigation to determine the close contacts of the person testing positive. That information is then distributed to members of the EHS team and also to the Contact Tracing Corps, which is a group of health sciences students from the School of Public Health who provide daily support for contact tracing students in Washtenaw County.

Those contacted by a tracer can expect a phone interview that lasts about 10 minutes. Close contacts are asked to verify some personal information (to ensure the tracer is speaking to the correct person), confirm the address at which they will be in quarantine, inform the tracer whether they are currently experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19 and if they have had a COVID-19 test. Tracers will also inquire about the living environment to assess whether it is safe to quarantine in the current location.

“We’re trying to avoid community spread of COVID-19, which could prompt much more aggressive containment measures,” said Beck. “If we can continue to successfully contact trace individuals and have them self-quarantine quickly, we reduce the risk of them infecting others if they turn into a positive case.”