CBS 58 Investigates: Contact tracing troubles
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) – One of the key tools to stop the spread of coronavirus is contact tracing. That’s when a health care professional interviews people who’ve been diagnosed with the virus to learn where they’ve been and who they’ve been around. But reopening states and scams are making the traces even harder.
Before safer at home, contact tracers regularly found people who caught COVID-19 had seen between five and ten people. That number fell during stay at home, but it's rising again.
“We can kind of lose control if you will, over the outbreak, because if you’re positive and you’ve infected 12 other people or exposed 12 other people, you can see how that can grow pretty quickly,” said Greenfield Health Director Darren Rausch.
Rausch explained Milwaukee County’s health departments' attempt to reach all people testing positive for coronavirus within 24 hours.
“We’re trying to talk to people, we’re trying to connect to people,” said Rausch.
The county’s tracking tool shows the departments are reaching at least half of all cases within a day, but Rausch said the disease detectives run into problems.
“Do we have the right phone number, are people answering their phones, calling us back,” said Rausch.
Contact tracing has gotten more complicated as more people start going back to bars and stores, or participate in large gatherings like protests.
“There isn’t an app, this is an intensive, person-driven investigation,” said Rausch.
There could be an app in the future. Google and Apple are partnering on one. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed its own. It uses the Bluetooth data from our cell phones. Once someone is diagnosed, public health professionals could run the phone's Bluetooth data against the contacts that it's been near, giving disease detectives a precise list of the phones they need to reach out to. But there are concerns about privacy, data security, and even how public health departments would get the data.
“How does that information feed to us,” said Rausch.
Making all these efforts more difficult, scammers are now posing as contact tracers too.
“Whatever they have to do or say to get your information or steal your money, they’re going to do,” said Wisconsin BBB Investigations Director Lisa Schiller.
Schiller explained scammers are trying two cons. Either they’ll send a text, trying to get a person to click a link infecting their device with bad software, or scammers will use a robocall and the person on the other end of the line will start asking about a person’s bank accounts and other financial information. Schiller said that’s not what real contact tracers ask about.
“They will not ask for government ID numbers or bank account numbers or details,” said Schiller.
Legitimate contact tracers will ask a person to confirm their identity. They’ll identify themselves and the health department they’re calling from. If someone is unsure of the call, Schiller advised hanging up and calling the health department back directly.
Rausch said Greenfield contact tracers call twice, leave a voicemail, send a text, and send a letter. Rausch acknowledged that’s a lot of attempts, but said the more people they can successfully reach and interview, the better chance they’ll have at stopping the spread of coronavirus.
Wisconsin is currently evaluating whether any app would be useful in contact tracing. A Department of Health Services spokesperson said no decisions have been made.