Contact tracing is a key tool to stopping the coronavirus pandemic.
The 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, which 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 be thwarting 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.
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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 households.
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 increase, 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, and 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?
We have seen 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 talk with 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.
Only about 70% to 80% of these positive hosts are able to be reached by contact tracers. For the 20% to 30% where this initial conversation never happens, their exposed contacts are never contacted.
When contact tracers are able to speak with positive hosts, information is gathered 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 about 44% of COVID-19 exposures are not reached by contact tracers.
There are myriad reasons that these contact tracing calls are unsuccessful. Of course, there are wrong numbers, disconnected lines and people who are 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 are impersonating 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, the Inspector General, the Department of Justice and the FBI. We don’t know how many contact tracing scam calls have been made. As of October 2021, COVID-19-related scams have cost consumers approximately $577.52 million. That’s the amount that the Federal Trade Commission reported was stolen in 2021 due to COVID-19-related government imposters.
In addition to the direct financial loss, these phone scams are also thwarting the efforts of legitimate contact tracers who are making phone calls to 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 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 are already using 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 something, hang up and call your local health department using a phone number you looked up independently.
3. Don’t Click Suspicious Links
Contact tracing fraudsters are also using 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.
Keep yourself safe by looking up unknown phone numbers on PeopleFinders.