COVIDiocy: contact tracing

There are too many idiotic policies that were/are related to COVID to mention, but since I have written two pieces so far today on COVID I thought I would write another to highlight just how stupid one of these policies was.


The policy was contact tracing for COVID cases. Of the many, many stupid policies put in place, contact tracing was among the most obviously stupid. That any public health establishment put serious resources into contact tracing demonstrates how profoundly unscientific they were.

Contact tracing is the practice of sleuthing out the origins of infection to discover the source of that particular infection and to warn others who might have been exposed.

In many cases and for many diseases it makes a lot of sense. Sexually transmitted infections are a great example. The number of potential contacts is relatively small, the incubation periods longer, and the ability to discover what behaviors might influence spread is useful. There are a number of diseases that fit this category, and contact tracing makes a lot of sense in these cases.

COVID had none of these characteristics. People are infectious for days prior to developing symptoms, and their viral loads are very high as they wander around blissfully unaware that they are spreading disease to potentially hundreds of people. There is no Typhoid Mary because potentially everybody is Typhoid Mary. Even people who never develop symptoms may be spreading the disease.

Not only will you never discover the actual source of COVID in many cases, you will never find the people they infected in time to make any difference. And at the time that contact tracing was at its most popular in the US, there was no effective treatment for the disease at all, short of hospitalization and mitigation of the symptoms, and that was only necessary in a tiny fraction of the cases and those cases required no ferreting out. If you developed severe symptoms, no public health official telling you that you might be infected with COVID was necessary.


Unlike syphilis, you know you have COVID and are either going to get over it or you will know you need treatment. Any contact from public health is useless.

There were literally no benefits to contact tracing that could remotely justify the diversion of resources required to conduct it. Not a one. And obviously so.

Yet a ton of resources were poured into it. Here in Minnesota at the early stages of the pandemic were heard all about contact tracing and testing as primary goals of the public health establishment, and neither of them had a bit of relevance to dealing with the pandemic. Each was useless, but many millions of dollars and man-hours were put into both efforts.

Contact tracing had one benefit: spending money to look like you were doing something. It seemed very sciency. It was CSI for disease!

At the height of the pandemic, there were millions of cases, and in almost all those cases the number of people who could potentially have given a patient COVID numbered in the tens or hundreds, and the number of people to whom the virus could have been passed was also in the tens or hundreds. The fastest supercomputer in the world couldn’t crunch the numbers to come up with useful data, assuming that the data could even be collected and put into a database in anything under the lifetime of the pandemic.


How many millions or billions were spent on this useless effort? God knows. It was all done at the local level where public health meets the public, and after months of useless effort, the project was eventually dropped. The CDC still has a page dedicated to contact tracing COVID cases.

Even I, a lowly political analyst, saw the futility as soon as the idea was floated. It is inconceivable that the people whose job it is to manage public health policies didn’t know that even before the project was proposed.

None of that mattered, though. It spent money and kept people employed.

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