Coronavirus Tracers Beg Residents: Please Reply Your Telephones

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Coronavirus Tracers Beg Residents: Please Answer Your Phones

Beware of spam calls and phishing scams have hampered efforts to trace coronavirus contacts across the country, with elected leaders urging voters to pick up their phones.

The District of Columbia mayor even channeled Lionel Richie to get people to listen.

"Hello? Yes, we're looking for you," Mayor Muriel Bowser told the Washingtoners. "Contact tracing is an important tool to get our city back on its feet. Answer the call."

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine urged residents of his state to "take the call!"

Both requests, sent in tweets, told residents that callers following contacts related to the coronavirus pandemic would not ask them for sensitive information like social security numbers or bank accounts to help distinguish public health workers from scammers.

But most people don't wait long enough to hear the voice on the other end.

And they have good reason to be careful: According to YouMail, which provides software that blocks such calls, Americans received 58.5 billion automated calls, often referred to as robocalls, in 2019.

According to YouMail, the country's capital received the most robocalls per person last year: the average person in Washington was blocked with 599 calls in 2019.

Carolyn Cannuscio, associate professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Pennsylvania, said that while contact tracing could still be effective without a 100 percent response rate, "the process depends on active public engagement."

Volunteers at the university have been following up contacts since April, said Dr. Cannuscio working with the Philadelphia Health Department. Calls from the team show up as "Penn Medicine," and approximately 75 percent of the people called by the contact tracers answer the phone.

"This is far better than what many churches report," said Dr. Cannuscio.

Tracers in Louisiana were able to reach 66 percent of identified cases from May 15 to September 24, said Alyson Neel, a spokeswoman for the state health department, in an email. Of the people they reached, more than 94 percent agreed to be surveyed.

The denial that many contact tracers face has led state health officials to find alternative ways to reach potentially infected people: In Louisiana, people who were not reached by phone received letters in the mail.

In the District of Columbia, calls appear as "DC COVID 19 Team," the district health department said in a statement. But even with a clear caller ID, some Washingtoners were upset and caused the department to visit them in person.

And in Florida, cautious people couldn't be to blame: some phone calls from contact tracers this summer were flagged as spam by phone companies, The Sun Sentinel reported.

Maximus, a company hired by the state to track contacts, declined to identify the companies, but said in an email Monday that the issue had been fixed and that its calls are not currently being mistakenly labeled as spam Residents would be reported.

Contact tracing, touted by health professionals as one of the most effective ways to combat coronavirus outbreaks, involves identifying people who may have been in contact with someone who has been confirmed to be infected with the virus.

In Louisiana, between May 15 and September 24, more than 26,000 of those tracers contacted spoke and provided clues as to 39,390 people they could have infected.

By tracing contacts, health and government officials can better understand where cases are in their community and how they're spreading so they can contain clusters before they become outbreaks.

"If we can break the chains of transmission and slow them down," said Dr. Cannuscio, "we can buy our time" before a vaccine is approved and distributed.

The higher the response rates, the faster we can get back to life the way we want to live it.

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