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Editorial: Fear coronavirus; embrace contact tracing

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As South Carolina reopens its economy, contact tracing will help limit coronavirus outbreaks by notifying people of their possible exposure and urging them to self-quarantine. Above, a technician works with coronavirus tests at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

Winning the war against COVID-19 will mean containing new outbreaks. And that will require the public to embrace rather than fear contact tracing — a proven method of stopping the spread of infectious diseases.

Yes, contact tracing may be inconvenient and require those in close contact with infected people to be quarantined and, perhaps, repeatedly tested for the virus. But in the long run, it’s better to aggressively corral the contagion and shut down discrete segments of our communities than to gamble with the health of the wider population.

The concept is straightforward. The idea is to isolate those who are known to be infected and those who might be infected even if they are asymptomatic. When a new infection is diagnosed, a contact tracer helps that person identify the people he or she has been in close contact with over their presumed contagious period.

This doesn’t mean trying to track down everyone who happened to be in the grocery store every time you shopped over the past two weeks. Contract tracers focus more on family members, co-workers and others to whom a patient would be likely to have spread the virus. Those people are then notified of their possible exposure and urged to quarantine themselves, typically for 14 days.

It’s not a perfect system, but it has been an effective public health tool for generations, helping eradicate diseases like smallpox. And there’s little to fear despite some knee-jerk reactions even from a few S.C. lawmakers.

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Speaking before the House on Tuesday, Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Townville, suggested people could be scooped up and forcibly quarantined, and children taken from their parents, without due process. That’s irresponsible fear-mongering.

The good news is that the Department of Health and Environmental Control recently hired about 400 contact tracers and identified 1,400 others who can be hired and used as needed.

Contact tracing is a confidential process, as Dr. Linda Bell, the state epidemiologist, has explained. Tracers won’t tell contacts who may have infected them, and there are no plans to enforce quarantines.

No one is going to fit you with a tracking device, though some big tech companies are working to develop applications that would aid contact tracers. Using such an application, however, would be purely voluntary.

We hope to soon see definitive evidence that infection rates are falling in South Carolina. Keeping infections down will depend on identifying outbreaks and isolating those likely to further spread the virus. That will require each of us to take some personal responsibility to stay healthy by keeping our guards up — and masks on — and, if infected, cooperating with contact tracers to help control the spread.

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