Contact tracing is a very tough job – especially without good guidance

Published: Friday, July 24th, 2020

Governments around the world are in a race against the clock to trace the close contacts of their citizens who have tested positive for COVID-19. As the number of new cases grows, so does the legion of contact tracers needed to get through the mounting backlog of contacts.

But where do you find people with experience and skill in contact tracing? The sad fact is, you don't, because they don’t exist in anything like the numbers that our communities need today. In an interview conducted by the Public Broadcasting Network on 22 July 2020, Dr Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) described the skills required by a contact tracer as being medical knowledge combined with social work, detective and counselling skills. That’s an unusual mix that most who are called at short notice to bolster the ranks of contact tracers simply do not possess.

When an outbreak occurs, time is of the essence. Minutes lost tracing the close contacts of those who test positive is time for the virus to spread to others. Each positive case means up to 10 or more close contacts to trace, each of which may unearth more that need to be found and interviewed. The interviews themselves can take an hour or more, and they can be so challenging that all the skills identified by Dr Frieden and more may need to come into play.

So how on earth can our governments be expected to respond to the inevitable outbreaks if containment relies upon testing and tracing, and tracing skills are in such short supply? It is not something that money alone can solve. Throwing unskilled people at the problem won’t solve it.

The answer lies in other strategies, one of which is to enable ordinary people to perform extraordinary tasks by guiding them through what needs to be done. This is the oldest and most proven approach to passing on skills. Master and apprentice – the master guides the apprentice until such time as the apprentice learns from experience and is able to approach mastery. Those of us of a certain age who remember TV shows of their childhood may remember "Kung Fu" and the life lessons taught to "Grasshopper". In the right circumstances, a similar approach can be applied to the world's need today to do and develop skills in contact tracing.

Panviva has long been used to provide the situation where people can develop and safely practise the skills by guiding them through the processes they need to be able to perform. Recently, we have been able to apply this to enabling contact tracing centres to be established quickly by people from all sorts of backgrounds.

Panviva has a part to play in helping the world to respond to the existential challenge posed by COVID-19. We stand ready, waiting for our leaders to recognise the solution under their noses and to reach out to deploy it.

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