Today's Update: Thursday, December 17

December 17, 2020

Dear Student Life Team, One of our most important tools in slowing the spread of COVID-19 is contact tracing. When someone tests positive for the virus, it is critical to trace the people they’ve been around so quarantining and isolation can take place, limiting the numbers of those exposed. 

The concept is far from new. Contact tracing has a long and controversial history that dates back to the 1920s. Dr. Amy Fairchild, Dean and Professor in Ohio State’s College of Public Health, recently co-wrote an article in The Conversation ( about that history.  

She pointed out that effective contact tracing depends on persuading everyone who tests positive to willingly share who they’ve been with and where. That requires trust and cooperation, which isn’t always present.  

When contact tracing became widespread about 100 years ago, apparently doctors were reluctant to turn over any information to health departments, afraid their patients would be “stolen” or that confidential patient health information would be revealed.   

The change in attitude came with syphilis and a compromise to protect the identity of some patients by using a code instead of names. In the 1960s, physicians were required to report cases to health departments for follow-up. Since the system depended on the cooperation of patients, confidentially became standard practice and investigators did not reveal any names of suspected contacts.  

Over time, the public’s trust in the contract tracing process has ebbed and flowed, from a strong degree of confidence in confidentiality in the 1960s to a devastating fear of targeting and exposure during the AIDS epidemic. 

Today, I hope we all have a great deal more trust and confidence in the system, particularly as it relates to how it is handled during the COVID-19 pandemic. I know I do.  

As Dr. Fairchild concluded her article, “Trust that one’s name and medical information will be kept confidential is core to its success. Without that trust, even individuals who might want to help identify potential contacts may feel silence is safer. 

But contact tracing also relies on speed. We not only need more contract tracers in the U.S., we need more cooperation. If too many individuals refuse to participate, public health risks losing one of the single best means of halting the resurgence of COVID-19.” 

Ohio State has a strong contact tracing program. We have a whole team of university-employed contact tracers who work in conjunction with Columbus Public Health, dedicated to making the system work and to make everyone involved feel comfortable with the process.  

I thought you’d like to learn, as I did, about the history of contact tracing. It’s another part of our Scarlet and Great effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.