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Contact Tracing Versus Unknown Phone Numbers

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COVID-19 Contact Tracing
COVID-19 Contact Tracing

Contact tracing is a key tool to stopping the coronavirus pandemic. Teams of medical detectives notify people when they’ve been exposed to COVID-19. This can help each person avoid passing the virus on to an additional set of contacts. This slows down the rate of transmission. 

In an analysis of the San Francisco tracing program, researchers found that contact tracing prevented 44% of transmissions from April through June 2020. Without this tool in place, the number of nationwide COVID-19 cases would have been higher. 

However, there’s a key issue that can thwart this necessary medical intervention—caller IDs displaying unknown numbers. 

Below, let’s look at the data about how many calls from contact tracers go unanswered and why contact tracing has become so difficult.

covid-19 contact tracing

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<a href="https://www.peoplefinders.com/blog/contact-tracing-versus-unknown-phone-numbers/"><img alt="Contact Tracing Versus Unknown Phone Numbers" src="https://www.peoplefinders.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/covid-19-contact-tracing-versus-unknown-phone-numbers-infographic-peoplefinders.png " width="600px" height="3601px" /></a><br><a href="https://www.peoplefinders.com/blog/contact-tracing-versus-unknown-phone-numbers/">Contact Tracing Versus Unknown Phone Numbers</a> Created By:  <a href="https://peoplefinders.com/ "> PeopleFinders</a>Calls From Contact Tracers Go Unanswered

Calls From Contact Tracers Go Unanswered

According to Pew Research, only 19% of Americans answer calls from unknown numbers. The remaining 81% ignore these calls or let them go to voicemail. 

However, a call from a contact tracer will have an unfamiliar number. And not answering these calls can have critical medical consequences. 

At worst, someone who has been exposed to the virus can unknowingly spread it to elderly family members or throughout the community. Even in the best-case scenario, when these calls go unanswered, they slow down the already difficult task of exposure tracking, notification and advising people of the next steps to protect the health of their household.  

How Many Contact Tracing Phone Calls Are Being Made?

One of the key issues facing contact tracing programs is that, as the number of COVID-19 cases increased, the number of contact tracing phone calls increases at an even faster rate. 

For example, let’s say a person who tested positive for COVID-19 has 10 contacts who need to be notified of their exposure. When there are 10 COVID-19 cases, it would mean 100 contact tracing phone calls. 65 COVID-19 cases would mean 650 phone calls. 

This creates an obvious staffing problem for contact tracing programs. Plus, the depth of a community program would need to shift based on how the disease is spreading. 

An Austin-based epidemiologist running the local contact tracing program says that, at first, at least six attempts were made to reach each person by phone. As cases increased, this had to be cut back to three attempts per person. 

How Successful Are Contact Tracing Programs?

There are consistent trends from contact tracing programs across Maryland, San Francisco and Austin. Notification rates have been roughly the same across these community programs.

The first contact tracing call is to each known person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. During the conversation with each positive host of the virus, the contact tracer gathers the information about who they have had interactions with.

Contact tracers only reach about 70% to 80% of these positive hosts. For the 20% to 30% where this initial conversation never happens, all of their exposed contacts are never contacted. 

When contact tracers can speak with positive hosts, they gather information about their contacts. And the tracer proceeds to call each person who has been exposed. On average, contact tracers are successful at reaching only about 75% of these exposed contacts. 

When we add up the exposed contacts that can’t be reached and the unknown contacts that can’t be identified, the result is that contact tracers do not reach about 44% of COVID-19 exposures.

There are myriad reasons why these contact tracing calls are unsuccessful. Of course, there are wrong numbers, disconnected lines and people actively avoiding calls from contact tracers. 

However, calls from unknown numbers are one of the simplest hindrances to contact tracing programs. And it’s one of the easiest to fix.

Some Contact Tracing Calls Are Not What They Seem

The flip side of this issue is that calls from unknown numbers claiming to be contact tracers aren’t necessarily legitimate. A global pandemic hasn’t stopped criminals. Scammers impersonate contact tracers as a way to collect information and steal money. 

With so many people already cautious about unknown numbers, scammers have found that claiming to be a contact tracer is an effective scam. The criminals can capitalize on the fear and uncertainty in their efforts to fool people. 

Warnings about contact tracing scams have been issued by the FTC, FCC, Inspector General, Department of Justice and FBI. While we don’t know how many contact tracing scam calls have been made, the financial toll of contact tracing scams has topped $7.27 million. That’s the amount that the Federal Trade Commission reported was stolen in 2020 due to COVID-19-related government imposters. 

In addition to the direct financial loss, these phone scams also thwart the efforts of legitimate contact tracers who make phone calls to try and stop the spread of the disease. 

How Do You Tell If It’s a Contact Tracing Scam?

If you get a call from an unknown phone number, there are three ways to avoid a contact tracing scam. 

1. Look Up the Phone Number of Unknown Callers

The easiest first step is to do a reverse phone lookup from a credible site to find out exactly who is trying to reach you. By revealing the identity of the unknown caller, you’ll be armed with the information you need to further assess the authenticity of the call. 

Many people already use phone number lookups in response to unknown calls from potential contact tracers. In an analysis that compared staff contact tracers calling from health departments with independent contact tracers, staff tracers were 23% more likely to reach contacts. 

2. Watch for Red Flags

When talking with a caller who says they’re a contact tracer, listen for cues that certify their credentials and watch out for any red flags. 

Legitimate contact tracers will not ask for money, financial information, a Social Security Number, or your immigration status. If a call seems suspicious, say nothing, hang up and call your local health department using a phone number that you looked up independently.

Contact tracing fraudsters also use text messages to fool people. A common scam is to send a text message asking you to download a contact tracing app or click on a link. This infects your device with malware and allows criminals to access personal information.

Don’t click on any suspicious links from unknown contacts. Instead, get the relevant contact tracing app for your region by visiting the government’s COVID-19 response website. From there, you can download the authorized COVID-19 contact tracing app, as well as access other COVID-19 resources. 

For more information about search tools and COVID-19, be sure to read the PeopleFinders Blog.

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