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Contact Tracing Frequently Asked Questions

Stay Calm - Stay Alert - Stay Safe

As COVID-19 remains a threat in our communities, the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PA DOH) continues to advocate that individuals stay calm, stay alert and stay safe. Contact tracing emphasizes the importance of staying alert while we battle this virus and pandemic.

An Overview of the COVID-19 Process:

  • Test – If you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or have been exposed to an individual who has COVID-19, you can find a testing site to get tested.
  • Trace – If you test positive, a public health staff member will try to call you within 24 hours of receiving the test result. They will conduct a case investigation and trace the people and places you may have come in contact with while you were potentially infectious. While you isolate for a minimum of ten days, contact tracers will reach out to your close contacts to inform them that they were exposed, educate them on what to do and provide supports and testing information as necessary for the situation. Contact tracers will not use your name when reaching out to your close contacts. Your information will stay confidential.
  • And stay in place – Close contacts of a case are considered to have been exposed to COVID-19 by being within 6 feet of a person with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes while they were infectious.  Close contacts are at risk for developing disease. Identifying, testing and quarantining close contacts limits their ability to spread disease should they become infectious and helps to limit community spread.  

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is the process of identifying, notifying, and monitoring anyone who came in close contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 while they were infectious.

Contact tracing involves reaching out to people exposed to a case of COVID-19 and asking them to stay away from other people until a full incubation period (14 days) has passed.  By staying home for 14 days, quarantined close contacts are not able to spread the virus to others if they go on to have the disease.

Contact tracing is a critical part and key strategy of Pennsylvania's Process to Reopen and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

View the contact tracing strategy.

What is the contact tracing process?

How is contact tracing different than case investigation?

Case investigation is the identification and investigation of patients who are classified as being a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19. This includes learning when the case was infectious and identifying the people and places they were around while infectious.

Contact tracing is the subsequent verification, monitoring, and support of their contacts who have been exposed to, and possibly infected with, the virus. Cases are people who have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Contacts have been exposed to someone who is a case, and it is unknown if the contact will go on to develop COVID-19.

Conducting a case investigation is necessary to get information about who had close contact with the case. Comprehensive information on a patient diagnosed with COVID-19 is the foundation of case investigation and contact tracing. This information includes the socio-demographic information, date of symptom onset or date of specimen collection for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) testing, risk factors for illness, list of close contacts and their locating information, activity history during the 14 days prior to illness including specific details during their infectious period prior to isolation and exposure locations (including events/gatherings with unknown contacts).

Who does contact tracing?

County/Municipal Health Departments (CMHDs): In areas of the state with independent health departments (i.e. Philadelphia, Allegheny, Erie, Montgomery, Chester, Bucks counties and the cities of York, Allentown, Bethlehem, and Wilkes-Barre), the CMHDs have the main responsibility for contact tracing efforts. The Pennsylvania Department of Health is responsible for coordinating and implementing the contact tracing efforts for all areas outside of those covered by CMHDs. 

Community Health Nurses: Public health staff, like the committed community health nurses, are the backbone of contact tracing. All additional resources put in place are to help bolster and strengthen the long-term infrastructure of COVID-19 contact tracing efforts. Those further supports include:

  • Incident Command Center Contact Tracing Subgroup: The PA Department of Health embedded a Contact Tracing subgroup into the Incident Command Center in late April. The subgroup is led by a Special Advisor to the Secretary of Health, and includes representation from the Governor's Office and various implicated agencies throughout the commonwealth. The subgroup is charged with building a robust contact tracing strategy for the commonwealth.
  • Regional Consortiums: The Contact Tracing subgroup formed six regional partnerships that include public health staff, health providers, academic institutions, community organizations, and other stakeholders interested in helping to coordinate and engage around contact tracing efforts. Organizations and entities interested in partnering in these efforts should reach out to RA-DHCONTACTTRACING@pa.gov.
  • The Commonwealth Civilian Coronavirus Corps (CCCC) is a key aspect of preparing for the resurgence of COVID-19. One element of the CCCC is a robust team of contact tracers across the commonwealth with the ability to communicate with contacts to notify them of exposure, provide disease and transmission information, gather data on demographics and may provide a referral for testing (if appropriate). The CCCC staffing strategy contemplates both hired team members and volunteers. A component of this staffing plan includes utilizing grant funding from the U.S. Department of Labor's Dislocated Worker Program to hire unemployed Pennsylvanians to do contact tracing as part of a health care career pathway.
    • Contact Tracing Staff: There are paid contact tracing positions available. To learn more, please visit the contact tracing page
    • Volunteers: We will also integrate volunteers into the program, and place them in roles based on their trainings and certifications. As we develop our CCCC staffing and contact tracing plans, we are focused on the immediate needs of our Commonwealth through the phased reopening process, which are contact tracing and getting people back to work.

How many contact tracers does Pennsylvania need?

The state determines the number of contact tracers needed via a formula that looks at a county's seven-day average of new cases, multiplied by the number of contacts and the average time it takes to do an interview.

As of July 2020, Pennsylvanians share, on average, one to ten contacts. Our estimates show that the state currently needs about 650 full-time contact tracers. However, this number could grow to hundreds, even thousands, depending on potential resurgence of COVID-19.  

Can I help with contact tracing?

As of July 30, the department has partnered with Insight Global to hire 1,000 paid contact tracing positions. Find more information about the positions.

You can also help the success of contact tracing by answering your phone and encouraging others to do so in case a contact tracer is trying to reach out.

I received outreach from a health department. Was it for contact tracing?

A public health staff member will call people who were diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19. A person who is positive for COVID-19 is called a 'case.'

Across the state, our goal is that within 24 hours of receiving the positive result, trained public health staff conduct an interview with the case to obtain a list of close contacts they had while infectious. Cases are considered to be infectious beginning two days before onset of symptoms or two days before the date of the positive result if the person did not have symptoms. The cases are encouraged to utilize calendars, social media, etc. to remember where and who they were around during their infectious period.

Then contact tracers, both trained staff and volunteers, reach out to educate, inform and support those who had a known close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual through phone calls, texts, emails and mailings. Contact tracers will not use your name when reaching out to your close contacts. Your information will stay confidential.

A contact tracer may also ask:

  • For verification of your date of birth, address, and any other phone numbers you may have; and
  • If you have already tested positive for COVID-19 they may also ask for the date and location of where you were tested.

A contact tracer will NEVER ask you for:

  • Your social security number, financial or bank account information, or personal details unrelated to your potential exposure to someone with COVID-19;
  • Personal information through SMS/text message or send you to any website link asking for personal information;
  • Photographs or videos of any kind;
  • Passwords; or
  • Money or payment. 

A contact tracer will NEVER share your information with any local, state or federal law enforcement agency.

If you would like to verify if the caller does in fact work in contact tracing, call the PA Department of Health at 1-877-PA HEALTH to verify.

How long does an interview last?

An interview with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 (a "case") typically lasts between 30 and 60 minutes. An interview with someone possibly exposed to COVID-19 (a "contact") typically lasts between 15 and 30 minutes.

How did they get my information?

If you tested positive for COVID-19, your test results were reported to the PA DOH/CMHDs via the PA National Electronic Disease Surveillance System (PA-NEDSS). From there, they will be kept confidential and maintained by the PA DOH/CMHD staff.

If you were exposed to COVID-19, the contact tracer received your information because someone diagnosed with COVID-19 told a contact tracer that you were in close contact with them during their infectious period.

If I am considered a close contact, what should I do?

  • Stay home and maintain social distancing through the end of your quarantine period (14 days from the date of your last exposure to a case). 
  • Monitor yourself daily for symptoms of COVID-19, including checking your temperature.
  • Be aware that you could possibly spread the infection to others, even if you do not feel sick.
  • If you feel worse, immediately call your health care provider and see if you should be tested for COVID-19. If you do not have a health care provider, call the nearest hospital or urgent care to schedule an appointment.

How will contact tracers monitor a close contact?

With consent, contacts are enrolled into a daily symptom monitoring system called Sara Alert. Contacts receive a daily symptom questionnaire via text, email, or robo-call, using whichever method is preferred by the contact, through the Sara Alert system or by manually inputting. If the contact is not interested in using Sara Alert, contact tracers will reach out daily using whatever method the contact prefers (call, email, text).  

Public health staff and contact tracers review the contacts' responses on a real-time dashboard and promptly reach out to anyone who answers "yes" to having a symptom(s). If a contact develops symptoms, they should isolate themselves and update their healthcare provider and public health staff. The contact will be evaluated to see if they need medical care and/or COVID-19 testing, but is also encouraged to contact their health care provider.  

Can a contact tracer tell me who exposed me?

Absolutely not. Contact tracers will notify you of the date you were exposed, however they will not release the identity of the case.

How often will contact tracers call me?

Contact tracers will only reach out when necessary. A contact tracer will call for the first interview and then work with the contact using their preferred outreach method such as through texts, emails and mailings.

How will my confidentiality and patient privacy be maintained?

The personal information you provide is completely private and will only be used for purposes of protecting public health. It will be maintained securely.

Any information you share with your contact tracer will not be shared with immigration, law enforcement or justice officials.

Why do contact tracers need to call people who were known to be exposed to COVID-19?

People diagnosed with COVID-19 can notify their own close contacts about their exposure, but it is important that a contact tracer also call these close contacts to help them get tested when indicated, monitor their symptoms, and offer them any services they might need. Also, this process keeps your health results confidential.

Am I allowed to go outside if the public health nurse tells me that I have been diagnosed with COVID-19? Am I allowed to go outside if my contact tracer tells me I was exposed to COVID-19?

Cases and contacts are allowed to step outside on their property as long as they do not come within 6 ft of others. They can sit on their porch, garden, take the dog out, etc. as long as no one else is within 6 feet. Cases and contacts should not go out into public places (grocery stores, worksite, etc.) during their quarantine or isolation period.

If you have a non-emergency medical care appointment, you should contact your provider to see if you if the appointment could be rescheduled.

What is the difference between isolation and quarantine?

Quarantine vs isolationAn individual will be in isolation if they are diagnosed as a case of COVID-19 and are asked to stay home, in a hospital or care facility to ensure they do not expose others with COVID-19.

An individual should quarantine if they are at-risk for contracting the virus.  Quarantining is suggested for those traveling to/from areas with high positivity rates for COVID-19 or if they were in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case. Quarantine lasts 14 days to provide enough time for a full incubation period to pass.

How long has contact tracing been going on?

Pennsylvania has utilized contact tracing as a tool to stop the spread of communicable diseases for decades. Specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing began when the first case was confirmed in March 2020 and has continued to be strengthened ever since.

Other Important Terms to Know:

  • A case is a patient who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. This person should isolate themselves, meaning they should stay away from other people who are not sick to avoid spreading the illness.
  • A contact is an individual who had close contact while the case patient was infectious. This person should quarantine themselves, meaning they should stay at home to limit community exposure and watch to see if symptoms develop.
  • A contact of a contact is an individual who had or continues to have close contact with a contact. This person should take every day preventative actions, like washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes, and cleaning surfaces frequently, however quarantine is not necessary. This person should also be alert for symptoms.
  • Case investigation is the identification and investigation of patients with confirmed or probable diagnoses of COVID-19.
  • Contact tracing is the subsequent verification, monitoring, and support of their contacts who have been exposed to, and possibly infected with, the virus.
  • An individual will likely be in isolation if they are classified as a case of COVID-19 and are asked to stay home, in a hospital or care facility to ensure they do not expose others with COVID-19.
  • An individual should quarantine if they are at-risk for contracting the virus. Quarantining is suggested for those traveling to/from areas with high positivity rates for COVID-19 or if they were in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case. Quarantine lasts 14 days to provide enough time for a full incubation period.

Contact Tracing in the Workplace:

As individuals wait for their results, they should self-quarantine if possible, if they live with others they should try to stay in a separate bedroom, use a private bathroom, etc. Make a list of people you visited or came into contact with before you got tested.

Within 24-48 hours of receiving the test results, trained public health staff conduct an interview with the COVID-19 case to obtain a list of close contacts they had while infectious. Every COVID-19 case has a case investigation.

Employees should consult their company's guidance to see if there is further guidance from the company. Employers play a critical role in protecting your workers, customers, suppliers, and the general public while mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

Contract Tracing in Schools:

The Wolf Administration has shared numerous resources, including public health guidance, for Pre-K through 12 schools and preliminary guidance for postsecondary schools to utilize when reopening for the 2020-2021 school year.

Do Pre-K through 12th grade schools need to contact trace?

No. Pre-K through 12 schools are not expected to perform contact tracing. DOH or county and municipal health departments (CMHDs) staff will notify the school entity immediately upon learning that a person with COVID-19 was present at the school or a school event while infectious. DOH or CMHD staff will assist the school with risk assessment, isolation and quarantine recommendations, and other infection control recommendations. Schools should take every measure to maintain the confidentiality of the affected individual. DOH or the CMHD will perform case investigation steps and assign contact tracing activities.

For more information relating to contact tracing and responding to COVID-19 cases for Pre-K through 12 schools, please visit the Department of Education's reopening page here.

Is contact tracing recommended for institutions of higher education?

The PA Department of Health, along with CMHDs across the commonwealth, complete thorough case investigations of all cases reported to the department, including the collection of contacts to engage with and monitor. Case investigation steps by DOH will occur regardless of whether institutions are doing their own contact tracing. There are potential benefits to institutions of higher education implementing their own contact tracing programs, including protection for students or faculty waiting for test results, access to updated contact information and better call response and engagement from students.

Institutions that wish to complete their own contact tracing of students/faculty/staff may do so in collaboration with the PA DOH or local health department. The following information is collected from contact tracing partners:

  • Number of contact tracers (paid and volunteer)
  • Reporting of the number of contacts reached
  • The average time in completing outreach to contacts
  • Other metrics as defined by the PA DOH or CMHD

If institutions of higher education are interested in conducting their own contact tracing or have questions on the process, please email RA-DHCONTACTTRACING@pa.gov.

Is universal testing of staff, faculty and students recommended for institutions of higher education?

No, universal testing by institutions of higher education is not recommended. See the CDC Interim Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education Administrators for SARS-CoV-2 Testing for more information.

Does the Governor's recommendation to quarantine after travel apply to institutions of higher education?

Yes. Schools, including institutions of higher education, should create a policy and procedure on how to handle students who have traveled to or live in one of the listed states. This policy should be incorporated into the school's health and safety plans.

Who should we contact if we have questions or need information about COVID-19 on our campus?

Campuses should reach out to the State Health Center in their county or the local county or municipal health department for questions or information about COVID-19 on campus.

How will student cases of COVID-19 be counted at colleges and universities?

Guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states cases that occur at institutes of higher education, like colleges and universities, should be attributed to the county where the student/individual currently resides and intends to reside for most of the year.  For example, a student who is living on campus for most of the year and gets sick and tested while on campus will be attributed to the school's county case count. 

Date created: 7/31/2020; Date updated: 9/28/2020