Experts have warned that fall will be a uniquely challenging time for combating the pandemic, yet one of the most essential tools for stemming the spread of the coronavirus still has not been widely deployed in the United States and Europe.
While Western nations vowed repeatedly to develop “world-beating” contact tracing and testing operations at the onset of the pandemic, counting and monitoring people who have been exposed to the virus, and who may expose others, has rarely been effectively implemented.
Beholden to privacy rules, Western officials largely trusted people to hand over names to contact tracers. But that trust was not repaid, in large part because governments neglected services that were crucial to winning people’s cooperation: a fast and accurate testing system, and guarantees that people would be housed, fed and paid while they isolated.
Elected officials presented the system as a critical bridge between lockdown and a vaccine, allowing them to contain small outbreaks without shutting down large parts of society. But construction of that bridge has been rocky, at best.
“Public health leaders fell in love with the idea of contact tracing as an important tactic — and it is — but that’d be like if you’re going into war and were just talking about the tanks,” said Brian Castrucci, president of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health charity in Maryland.
The West’s public health systems have not matched the success in parts of East Asia where the fear of epidemics became more ingrained after SARS appeared in 2002 and MERS was identified in 2012.
In England, people are neither handing over many contacts — about five, on average — nor following the rules.
“It suggests there is some degree of skepticism in the population to engagement,” said Professor Christophe Fraser of the University of Oxford, an adviser to the British government’s tracing program, referring to the proportion of known cases — a fifth — who handed over no other names.