Is COVID Contact Tracing Obsolete With Rise in At-Home Testing, Omicron Surge?

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to surge across the United States as new cases have jumped by 185 percent over the past two weeks and the daily caseload stands at over 760,000.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned that Omicron "will ultimately find just about everybody" as the highly infectious variant continues to spread among both those who have and have not received vaccinations against the coronavirus.

Given the variant's rapid spread and the rise of at-home testing as insurance companies now must cover eight tests a month, some have started to question the value of the Biden administration's investments toward contact tracing and whether the practice is still useful.

While Becker's Hospital Review writes that it's "unclear the exact amount of funds" that went toward tracing and the U.S. Treasury told Newsweek it "isn't something Treasury is tracking," the number stands somewhere in the hundreds of millions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doled out $631 million for tracing efforts in April of 2020 and some states spent millions developing apps.

President Biden Provides Update On Covid-19 Response
Stopping the spread of COVID-19 has been a focus of the Biden administration's public health efforts. Here, President Joe Biden removes his face mask as he arrives to speak in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus on October 14, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, weighed in on how useful these investments are now amid the Omicron surge and how helpful they may be in the future.

"When you get an enormous outbreak like we're having right now...It has less relevance," Benjamin told Newsweek. "(But) contact tracing still has an enormous role in our response."

While Omicron's ability to rapidly spread makes the original contact tracing measures less useful, Benjamin said those investments are not in vain. Once the current variant subsides, he said the existing contact tracing infrastructure can once again be deployed to address geographically confined outbreaks to prevent larger spreads.

Now that contact tracing technology and public health networks are in place, these tools can be used to prevent the spread of other diseases in the meantime, allowing the measures to still be of use, Benjamin said. Overreacting to the current infectiveness of contact tracing in regard to COIVD-19 could be incredibly costly and once again put America behind when it comes to responding to future threats of disease.

"One of the failures of our national policy and strategy has been this yo-yo funding where we put money in when something bad happens," Benjamin said. "The money comes in, often a little later than we needed it, and then the money goes away, and the capacity goes away. Then something bad happens again, and we could have mitigated it, but we didn't have the infrastructure to do it. If you built an army that way your army would never be successful."

Benjamin points to this lack of existing contact tracing infrastructure as a reason why America's contact tracing efforts never reached the level of success experienced in places like western Europe. He said many communities did not get funds until it was too late which never allowed the programs to hit their stride.

In the meantime, Benjamin said contact tracing in its current form should be tweaked to reflect the new realities of the virus.

Benjamin said people should now identify themselves whether they have potentially been infected. Once they receive an answer to that suspicion through a home test, he says they should contact their doctor who can provide therapies, state or local health department, and people they have come in contact with.

"The concept of contact tracing changes a bit from the health department being the center of the contact tracing effort to individuals aided in that," Benjamin told Newsweek. "So, contact tracing still plays a big role."