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What is Contact Tracing and How Are Scammers Taking Advantage?

As contact tracing to slow the spread of COVID-19 becomes more common, many people are becoming concerned about related privacy issues - and scammers are finding ways to use the situation to their advantage.

As contact tracing is becoming a commonly used tool to slow the spread of COVID-19, it’s a great idea to brush up on the basics so you can discuss it with your staff and patients.

What is Contact Tracing?

Contact tracing is considered a tool to slow the spread of COVID-19. It involves identifying individuals who have come into contact with other individuals who have the disease. Contact tracing relies on the ability to interview the individuals with COVID and identifying everyone with whom they have had close contact during the time they may have been infectious.

  • Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before the individual began feeling sick until the time the individual started isolation. 
  • Infectious period: According to the CDC, the infectious period is thought to be up to 14 days with a median time of 4 – 5 days from exposure to symptom onset.  Nearly 100% of people who develop symptoms do so within 11.5 days.
  • With contact tracing, individuals exposed to the infection can be notified and referred for testing and can be monitored for signs and symptoms.
  • The contact tracing can also direct services to those who are self-quarantining.

Contact Tracing Roadmap

The contact tracing “roadmap,” so to speak, follows these steps:

  • A public health worker contacts the patient and works with them to help them recall everyone they had close contact with during the time they were infectious.
  • The public health worker then begins contacting everyone identified by the patient of their potential exposure. The patient identity is not disclosed.
  • Those contacted are provided with education and support to help them isolate themselves and how to monitor their condition. They are also encouraged to socially distance (6 feet) themselves from others for 14 days after their last exposure to the infected individual.

HIPAA Concerns

As of this date, you have to “opt in” for contact tracing or download a specific app. According to the CDC,

“Discussions with health department staff are confidential. This means that your personal and medical information will be kept private and only shared with those who may need to know, like your health care provider. Your name will not be revealed to those you came in contact with. The health department will only notify your close contacts that they might have been exposed to COVID-19. How data are collected, stored, and shared are specific to each state or jurisdiction.”

Beware of These Scams

Real contact tracers may call, email, text or visit you at your home depending on how your state set up its program (check with your health department). They will ask for your name, address, date of birth and health information, as well as a long list of other potential questions.

Here’s the bad news: Scammers have jumped on this bandwagon, calling people and posing as professional contract tracers to gain easy access to personal and financial information.

When you get a call from someone purporting to be a contact tracer, keep these things in mind:

  • There is no cost involved when working with a contact tracer so don’t pay anyone anything
  • Do not give out your social security number or financial information
  • Don’t share immigration status
  • Don’t click on any links or download anything you receive via email or text

If you and/or your patients have been approached by a fake tracker, contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and report it to the state health department. 

To help you inform your patient population, the CDC provides this poster.

Additional References

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