Contact tracing has a long history as an effective public health measure that is especially useful in the absence of other preventive measures. In the past, personal interviews and paper lists captured information; now we have technology that can help make the process faster and more complete, explains Virginia Tech public health expert Lisa M. Lee.

“Until we are able to develop and distribute an effective vaccine against the virus that causes COVID-19, we have little choice but to use this old-fashioned, but highly effective public health practice to prevent the spread of this deadly disease,” says Lee.  

How can contact tracing help prevent COVID-19 from spreading?

“Contact tracing helps identify contacts and prevent them from passing on the infection, to reduce the spread of an infection. In the case of COVID-19, reducing spread of infection means saving lives,” says Lee.

“If done well, contact tracing is extremely effective in preventing the secondary spread of infectious conditions. It was the critical intervention, in combination with vaccination, employed by public health officials that eliminated smallpox, the only virus we’ve successfully eliminated globally.” 



“For contact tracing to be effective, public health personnel must obtain a complete list of persons with whom a case has interacted during the period a person was infectious, or able to spread the disease. In the case of COVID-19, there is evidence that an infected individual is contagious even before showing symptoms, or with only mild or unnoticeable symptoms. Once contacts are identified, they are quarantined for the duration of the infectious period to ensure that if they are infected, they do not further spread the disease.”

Are there any ethical concerns about sharing public health information?

“The virus that causes COVID-19 is extremely contagious and deadly. These two facts make controlling the spread a top priority, weighing even more than privacy at this stage in the pandemic. Americans place strong value on privacy. But there are rare situations when we are confronted with other strong values - in this case life and health - that outweigh strict privacy.”  

“The collection and use of public health information must be done ethically, meaning that it is collected and managed by a public health authority, which then must use the information only for the public health purpose for which it was collected.”  

“It is unethical for a public health authority to collect health information in the background and then use it in a way that harms the public or violates an individual’s confidentiality—for example, sharing it with law enforcement or using it for marketing purposes. The ethics of public health data collection and use require personnel to think about both the individual and the health of the community at large.”

About Lee

Lisa M. Lee serves as associate vice president for research and innovation and director of the Division of Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance at Virginia Tech. She also holds a faculty appointment in the Department of Population Health Sciences. Prior to joining Virginia Tech, she served for 20 years in a variety of roles in federal service, including as executive director of President Obama’s Bioethics Commission, chief of bioethics at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and a number of agency-level leadership roles at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her current scholarly interests focus on ethics pedagogy, public health ethics, and deliberation as a decision-making method in ethics.

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