We need better contact tracing data

Last week, New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli questioned the scientific basis for recent public health guidance against small gatherings. Politicians and public health officials are telling us to cancel Thanksgiving dinners, she writes, but it’s difficult to find data that actually demonstrate a link between small gatherings and COVID-19 transmission.

Mandavilli acknowledges that the majority of states do not collect or report detailed information on how their residents became infected with COVID-19. This type of information would come from contact tracing, in which public health workers call up COVID-19 patients to ask about their activities and close contacts. Contact tracing has been notoriously lacking in the U.S. due to limited resources and cultural pushback.

I came to a similar conclusion about the contact tracing data deficiency in October, when I investigated the practice in this newsletter. Still, the data that are publicly available suggest that larger gatherings and congregate facilities are still the major sources of virus spread, as Mandavilli writes:

But in states where a breakdown is available, long-term care facilities, food processing plants, prisons, health care settings, and restaurants and bars are still the leading sources of spread, the data suggest.

The piece faced criticism for potentially undermining important guidances about the holidays. Even CDC Director Robert Redfield pushed back against it. When asked about this story on Fox News, he said, “From the data that we have, that the real driver now of this epidemic is not the public square… It’s really being driven by household gatherings.”

For me, this distinction between Mandavilli’s story and Redfield’s statement underscores that either a.) the CDC has access to some contact tracing data that the rest of us don’t, or b.) nobody has access to complete contact tracing data, and public health officials are communicating the conclusions that seem more politically salient. I don’t love either outcome!

The volunteer project Test and Trace compiles information on each state’s contact tracing efforts. Check out how your state is faring, and if you’re unsatisfied, contact your local politicians and ask them to do better.

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