Imagine you begin to feel ill on Thursday, a few days after returning from a trip. You’re afraid it’s COVID-19, so you get tested on Friday. Even under good circumstances, it will probably be at least Monday before a contact tracer calls from the health department. And then some phone tag may ensue before you speak with anyone—if you get a call at all.
Once a contact tracer does reach you, you will be asked to remember all the people you were in close contact with, starting two days before you began feeling symptoms. That means recalling all the places you went and the people you saw over the past week.
It isn’t easy. As time passes, memories fade. Unfortunately, your contacts, unaware they were exposed to the coronavirus, may have already infected others.
Concerned about those delays, three of us and our colleague Ronald Fisher, all psychology professors with expertise in memory, developed a way for people who have been exposed to COVID-19 to effectively trace their recent contacts on their own.
Self-driven contact tracing shouldn’t replace health department efforts. Professional teams of trained contact tracers are critical for locating the people you came in contact with but don’t know, such as at a restaurant or on an airplane, and then tracing the next ring of contacts. However, jump-starting the effort on your own can improve your chances of remembering and allow you to warn your contacts sooner.
Notifying contacts faster
Contact tracing, along with testing and isolating people who are infected, is considered crucial for controlling the coronavirus’s spread until a vaccine becomes widely available.
Health department contact tracers try to notify and interview anyone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes