Contact Tracer: What They Do and How to Become One

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Explore what a contact tracer does, the skills and training needed to become one, salary, and opportunities for contact tracing professionals.

[Featured Image]:  A female contact tracer, wearing a blue vest, a yellow patterned top and a face covering.  She is standing in front of a building with a white wall.

Working as a contact tracer can be a rewarding career for those who enjoy interacting with the public and helping a community eradicate contagious diseases. Contact tracing became a familiar term during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has been around since the 1920s, and opportunities aren’t limited to global viruses. 

Contact tracers are essential to public health as they work during contagious disease outbreaks to identify those who may have been exposed to an infection or virus. The contract tracer notifies anyone who has had contact with an infected person and works to mitigate the further spread of the disease. COVID tracking has resulted in hiring tens of thousands of contact tracers. This article explains more about the role and how you can earn a certificate and work in the field of contact tracing.

What is contract tracing? 

The purpose of contract tracing is to identify people who have been exposed to a communicable disease so those they may have been in close contact with can be notified. Contract tracing helps contain the spread of infectious diseases by quarantining those who are ill and those who may have been exposed to a sick person.

Contract tracers deploy when transmissible diseases such as measles, tuberculosis, hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV are found in a community. 

What does a contact tracer do?

In your role as a contact tracer, you’ll reach out to someone with confirmed communicable diseases. You will ask a series of questions to determine where the person recently traveled, who they had contact with, and if they had been at any public settings such as schools, work, or large gatherings.

You’ll note anyone the person may have been in close contact with, so those people can be notified and advised on what to do next.

Responsibilities of a contact tracer 

As a contact tracer, you’ll be responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of the patient and anyone exposed to the patient. You’ll be required to communicate with patients and medical professionals.

You may also be responsible for making follow-up calls to check on patients and provide referrals if needed.

A contact tracer is responsible for keeping patient records of symptoms and living arrangements and noting any underlying medical conditions. You may also research social media accounts, GPS data, and other databases to find out where a person has been.

Key skills

Most contact tracing positions don’t require a specialized background, but it is helpful to have an interest in public health. You’ll need strong communication and persuasive skills, empathy, and good listening skills. You also benefit from persistence, organization, and critical thinking skills.  

You should be comfortable speaking with patients who may be scared, confused, or aggressive, and you’ll work with a diverse population. You’ll also need to be comfortable contacting those who may have been exposed to a communicable disease and ready to answer questions.

An essential part of the job is ensuring patients understand the importance of self-quarantining and have the resources needed to get through the quarantine period. Some people might be reluctant to follow quarantine orders because they fear losing their income or their living arrangements make it difficult or impossible to stay away from others in their household.

Much of the job will be making telephone calls or contacting patients by email, and you may have large volumes of calls each day. Most contact tracers work from home and input the information into a database. You may be required to sit for long periods.

Becoming a contact tracer 

The minimum educational requirement is generally a high school diploma. You can prepare to be a contact tracer in as little as seven hours. John Hopkins University offers a COVID-19 Contact Tracing online course on Coursera to earn a sharable certificate in contact tracing. You can work at your own pace and learn all you need to begin a new career helping others.

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COVID-19 Contact Tracing

The COVID-19 crisis has created an unprecedented need for contact tracing across the country, requiring thousands of people to learn key skills quickly. The ...

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Skills you'll build:

Ethics, Active Listening, Public Health, Contact Tracing, Epidemiology

The CDC offers online training for contact tracers as well. You can also contact your local health department for any available training courses; some states might also offer training. Some colleges, universities, and private health organizations also offer contact tracer courses. 

Employers 

Many contact tracers work for local and state governments.  Some private companies are providing contact tracers to government health departments. 

Many public health departments have applications on their websites, and you can contact them to see if they have any current openings. 

Check with your local temporary employment agencies too. Some public health departments may hire contact tracers temporarily through an agency.

Salary and career outlook

According to Glassdoor, the average annual salary for a contact tracer is $36,847 as of June 2022 [1]. You might receive additional pay, such as bonuses or benefits, which could total an average of $35,374 per year. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic slows, the need for contact tracers will likely return to pre-pandemic numbers, which was around 2,200 workers employed by state and local health departments throughout the US.

Aligning values: Meaningful work for a good cause 

In times of disease outbreak, it’s crucial to contain the spread as quickly and efficiently as possible. Your job as a contract tracer helps to slow the spread of diseases.

As a contact tracer, you’ll play an essential role in collecting data to help the medical community and your community.  Public health departments always look for volunteers if you can’t commit to a full-time position.

Although COVID is at the forefront of the need for contact tracers, it is not the only transmissible disease that needs monitoring so that it can become a long-term career. 

Next steps

When you’re ready to take the next step to become a contact tracer, contact your local and state health departments to see if they have openings. Many allow you to apply on their websites. 

To learn more about epidemics, Penn State offers its Epidemics - the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases course on infectious diseases. Also, the University of Florida offers a course on COVID-19 should you want to learn more about the disease, how it spreads, and how to stop it.

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Epidemics - the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases

Not so long ago, it was almost guaranteed that you would die of an infectious disease. In fact, had you been born just 150 years ago, your chances of dying ...

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If you have the opportunity, you might want to talk with a contact tracer to gain information about their experience.

As a contact tracer, you’ll be helping your community control the spread of communicable diseases and working in a rewarding career. 

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Article sources

  1. Glassdoor. “Contact Tracer Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/us-contact-tracer-salary-SRCH_IL.0,2_IN1_KO3,17.htm." June 2022. Accessed June 8, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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