The arrival of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in the U.S. has health officials in some communities reviving contact tracing operations in an attempt to slow and better understand its spread as scientists study how contagious it is and whether it can thwart vaccines.
Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said “more and more” contact tracing efforts are expected in the coming days, in part because of the uncertainty about how effective vaccines and treatments like monoclonal antibodies will be against omicron.
Contact tracing is a vital tool in the pandemic response, allowing health departments to notify people who had close contact with an infected person and slow the progression of COVID-19.
“Contact tracing can give us information about how it’s spreading and hopefully break chains of transmission to stop clusters and outbreaks, or at least delay them until we know more and understand what our next steps need to be,” said Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
While much is still unknown about the variant, early reports are raising alarms. New COVID-19 cases in South Africa, which first alerted the world to omicron last week, have burgeoned from about 200 a day in mid-November to more than 16,000 on Friday.
Some of the U.S. cases involve people who hadn’t traveled recently, meaning the variant was likely already circulating domestically in some parts of the country.
Amid the surge of the delta variant, health investigators across the U.S. became overwhelmed and scaled back contact tracing operations, finding it nearly imposible to keep up with the deluge of new infections, administer vaccines and also do tracing at the same time.
Many health officials ultimately focused on exposures at schools or potential super-spreader incidents where large numbers of people were at risk of exposure.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, expects that will ultimately happen with omicron.
“Contact tracing and sequencing will allow us to paint with a broad brush,” Schaffner said. “But we won’t be able to track it down to each and every case, and at a given point, when you know it is here and spreading, why do we need to do that?”