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EDITORIAL: Contact tracers need your help

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Locating infected individuals, identifying their close contacts, and asking those contacts to quarantine limits the spread of the disease without imposing sweeping stay-at-home orders.

It seems like such a simple request.

People who test positive for a contagious disease that has killed more than 225,000 Americans receive a call from a contact tracer asking a few questions so that others who might have been exposed to the disease can be notified.

It's an essential key in the fight to control the novel coronavirus. And yet so many people simply refuse to take part.

Let's take a recent week in Pennsylvania as an example. Between Oct. 16 and Oct. 22, 9,754 people tested positive for coronavirus in the state. Only 2,841 of them answered the state's contact tracing survey.

That's less than one in three. 

That's just not acceptable.

We understand that people who test positive are likely to be sick. Some might be incapacitated, hospitalized. 

But there are also many who have few if any symptoms, and they are the ones who seem most likely to have been in public places and potentially passed the virus on to others. They're the ones who the contact tracers really need to talk to.

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It's a simple process. In Pennsylvania, a state health worker calls anyone who receives a positive coronavirus test. They ask the person to tell them anyone they have been in close contact with for more than 15 minutes beginning two days before they began having symptoms or two days before the positive test. The people who have tested positive are asked to check their calendars and social media to help them remember where they have been.

From there, contact tracers get in touch with people who were in close contact with the person, and those people are asked to quarantine themselves for 14 days and to monitor themselves for symptoms.

It's a straightforward process: If a person knows they have come in contact with someone who has the coronavirus, they can take precautions and help stop the spread of the virus.

And yet many Americans refuse to do this. According to a survey released Friday by the Pew Research Center, 41% of adults surveyed said they would be “not at all” or “not too likely” to talk to a public health official by phone or text message about the coronavirus, Vox reported.

There are several reasons for this, including that people are unlikely to answer a call from an unknown phone number and that they are afraid their personal information will be compromised.

But there is also just a reluctance to share information about potential contact with a contagious person, from the White House to the rest of the country. Contact tracers have had people yell at them, hang up on them and say that they have already told all their friends and family and refuse to give officials their names, according to Vox.

While we are all very wary of sharing information with a stranger, there are times when we need to trust a system that has been used for decades to try to stop the spread of contagious diseases. In Pennsylvania, state health workers will ask for your date of birth, address and phone numbers, but no other personal information, and the people being contacted will not be told the name of the person who tested positive.

And remember, this is part of a system that is trying to stop the spread of COVID-19. By Saturday, 6,716 people in York County had tested positive for the coronavirus, and 207 deaths in the county had been linked to COVID-19 since the outbreak began in the spring. Globally more than 46 million cases had been reported by Sunday, and nearly 2 million people had died, according to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.

If you can answer a few questions that could potentially keep someone, even one person, from getting this horrible disease and possibly dying, why would you not do it?