The virus is surging again. Here’s how to be your own contact tracer if you get sick.
As the pandemic crests into the second half of its third year, highly transmissible, immunity-evading Covid-19 variants are fueling another spike in infections. While Covid-19 fatigue and official case data might indicate a modest wave of positive cases, at-home test results are largely unaccounted for in published data. Just as the infrastructure of testing has largely turned to the individual given the closure of many public testing sites, so has contact tracing. In the event someone tests positive for Covid-19, the responsibility has now fallen onto that person to inform their network.
“These conversations, compared to a few years ago, are not only much more widely accepted,” says Donald Yealy, chief medical officer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, “they’re actually expected more. It’s an act of kindness to share that.”
By telling those you’ve recently interacted with that you’ve gotten sick, you’re empowering them with the knowledge to get tested and to isolate, hopefully to further prevent spread — especially to older or immunocompromised people.
Who to tell
You don’t need to alert everyone in your contacts list that you’ve come down with Covid-19, but you should inform the people who are most likely to have picked up the virus from you, Yealy says: People you were within six feet of indoors — masked or unmasked — as well as people who were within arm’s reach outdoors during the two-day period before you started exhibiting symptoms, or the two-day period before you took a test, if you don’t have symptoms.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says to inform anyone who you were around for 15 minutes or more during a 24-hour period, “the virus does gain a foothold more easily now,” Yealy says. “Think of how close was I and for how long? If you’re really close together, within feet of each other or in physical contact, you don’t even need that 15-minute period.” Think: intimate partners, roommates, live-in family members, co-workers, friends you recently saw, your child’s teacher (if your kid has tested positive), hosts of a party or wedding you attended.
Party hosts or organizers of events with more than a few people should tell as many attendees as possible whether they’ve come down with Covid-19 or another guest has. “We often don’t know all of the health conditions of [other attendees],” Yealy says. “We really can have a difficult time quantifying how much and how close the contact. I would advise on sharing the information more widely.” For example, when etiquette expert Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and author of a number of etiquette books, tested positive for Covid-19 after attending a friend’s Fourth of July party, she texted her host the news, who then informed the rest of the attendees.
If you were at the same event as someone older, or who you knew had underlying health conditions, even if you didn’t necessarily interact with them, “I’d let them know, because their risk of getting infected is higher,” Yealy says.
Of course, there are people you may not know — servers at a restaurant, friends of friends at a party — but you should make the best effort to contact every person you were in close proximity with, Yealy says.
When to share
If you’re feeling sick enough to warrant testing, you should start to inform your network that you could potentially have Covid. Given the relative accessibility of rapid tests, you could have a diagnosis fairly quickly after developing symptoms. But if you’re waiting on an appointment or results from a PCR test, you can still tell your roommates you’ve been exposed, for example, or are under the weather in the interim. Yealy cautions anyone against attending social events, work, or school if they have respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms of any kind.
Of course, once you get a positive diagnosis, whether from a rapid or PCR test, you should work your way through your close contact list. The sooner you let your network know, the better, since available treatments and antivirals are often most effective early in the infection.
How to inform your network
When it comes to the actual message and its mode of delivery, communicate with your contacts the same way you normally would. Prefer text over phone calls? Go for it. Do you typically email book club members? Opt for email. “Get in touch with people in the most common way you communicate with them usually, because that’s what they’re most likely to pay attention to,” Post says.
Be as straightforward as possible in your delivery and stick to the facts: tell them when you tested positive and if you had any symptoms. Post suggests saying something along the lines of “I wanted to let you know I tested positive for Covid-19 today. It seems like when we last saw each other was in the window of when I could’ve picked it up and spread it to others.” The same approach applies to everyone, from friends and family to your boss or children’s school. “I would keep it very factual and direct,” Yealy says.
While we might feel inclined to apologize for exposing others, remember you didn’t intend to get sick, says marriage and family therapist Abby Krom. Accidents happen. “We do have a tendency to blame ourselves, because it is hard to acknowledge that we’re not in control,” she says. “So it’s almost easier to feel in control even if you’re blaming yourself.” If you suggested indoor dining plans despite your friend’s preference for eating outside, for example, then you can say something along the lines of, “I minimized the risk and I realize that was wrong,” Krom suggests.
If you’re informing guests of your event on behalf of another guest who got sick, do not name them, and say “I just wanted to let you know another guest tested positive.”
While a Covid-19 diagnosis is mired in much less shame than two years ago — an estimated 82 percent of people in the United States have come down with the virus at least once, after all — some people may get less-than-positive reactions when sharing the news. When people are angry or scared, their knee-jerk reaction might be to respond harshly; “How could you be so careless?” or “I was supposed to go to my cousin’s wedding. I can’t believe you’d jeopardize that.”
Take a beat to consider if what they’re saying is true: Were you being careless? Were you knowingly jeopardizing their health or travel plans? “Our instinct is to apologize or take the blame, but that’s not a healthy instinct because it might not be our responsibility,” Krom says. You might need to allow the person space to cool off. Then, to pick up the conversation later, say, “I can tell you were really upset with me. Are you still feeling that way? Can we talk more about that?” Krom suggests.
Another reaction might be genuine curiosity: A friend who inquires about where you think you might’ve caught Covid-19 or to describe your symptoms. Post says it can be helpful for your network to have access to this information so they can determine when they should test and whether they should start to inform their networks of a possible exposure. However, you’re under no obligation to divulge everything, Krom says. Try replying with “I’m a little overwhelmed myself and I’m still digesting the news,” if you’d prefer not to share.
The reality, Post says, is most people will be understanding and thankful for the insight. Out of the nearly two dozen people she informed of her Covid diagnosis, no one was upset. “I definitely felt guilty about the party I had been at and the fact that I had to tell these people, ‘I might have exposed you to Covid,’ and they were really gracious about it,” Post says. “So be gracious if someone tells you they have it. Don’t go to the fear-first mode. Go to information and questions. Get curious, get investigative.”
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