As New York City waits to see whether the ongoing protests against racist police violence will trigger a second wave of coronavirus infections, contact tracers are balancing the privacy of demonstrators against the need to stem a public health threat.

In a move that has drawn scrutiny, the city's roughly 3,000 contact tracers are not being directed to ask infected individuals if they have attended a protest in recent weeks. Instead, they may ask them a host of general questions, such as whether they have attended a large event, that are intended to elicit information about their activities and close contacts.

“Tracing relies on a person’s ability to identify and share information regarding close contacts," said Avery Cohen, a City Hall spokesperson. "This is not always possible in a large, anonymous environment like a protest, which is why we’re encouraging all New Yorkers—especially those who participated in a protest—to get tested."

Many protesters have been sensitive about revealing their identities, declining to provide their names during interviews with reporters or being photographed. On Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo reassured New Yorkers that while demographic information was collected for a better understanding of the spread of the virus, no personal information would be shared with any federal agency like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

According to Cohen, the city's tracers begin by asking people questions related to their living situation, such as "Do you live with anyone in your home?" From there, a tracer may connect the individual to a hotel room. To date, 40 New Yorkers have availed themselves of a hotel room provided by the city.

Tracers will also ask about the individual’s work environment, "and other events they may have recently attended, to help recall additional contacts," she said.

Some have disagreed with the city's indirect approach. Dr. Jake Deutsch, the cofounder and clinical director of the city’s Cure Urgent Care centers, told the New York Post, “It would make logical sense that would be something to include if you were doing a survey to determine risk."

Although contact tracing has been used for decades with other diseases like tuberculosis and HIV, the stakes have never felt so high. The infection rate in New York City has remained relatively flat at between 2 and 3 percent for the last two weeks. But at least 22 states have seen an increase in cases, confirming the fears of experts that reopenings, which have led to throngs of people gathering at restaurants and bars as well as beaches, will lead to more outbreaks.

Keeping the virus at bay will mean contact tracers must identify and isolate a large number of infected individuals.

The initiative, which began on June 1st, has been described as a community-based effort that relies on building trust with individuals. More than half of the tracers hired by the city are from neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by covid. The members speak multiple languages. The city has announced that it is awarding $4 million to community organizations to help them perform outreach on contact tracing.

On Tuesday, Dr. Ted Long, who heads the city's contact tracing program, released for the first time a snapshot of how many potentially infected individuals the contract tracing initiative have been able to track down so far.

Of the 5,341 people confirmed or presumed positive for coronavirus that have been interviewed so far, 1,866 or roughly 35 percent offered up contacts.

"That is too low by far," said Mark Levine, the chairman of the City Council health committee. “We have a lot more work to do to get buy-in from the public."

On the question of protests, he said that he believes tracers should simply ask people if they have been to any large public gatherings.

"This can’t be done with a heavy hand," he said. "There should not be an enforcement approach to contact tracing.”

Levine said the city should consider developing a cell phone app that would capture contacts through the exchange of low-energy Bluetooth radio signal and trigger notifications if a person tests positive.

4,421 contacts have been tallied from the interviews so far, and the city was able to track down 2,299, or 52 percent.

For contact tracing to be effective, compliance does not have to be necessarily high. One study last month based on demographic data in Boston showed that assuming that half of symptomatic infections are identified, the tracing of 40 percent of their contacts and households is all that is needed to reduce transmission enough to allow for the reopening of economic activities.

"When 40 percent or more of the contacts of the detected symptomatic infections are traced and they and their households quarantined, the ensuing reduction in transmission leads to a noticeable flattening of the epidemic curve and appears to effectively limit the possible resurgence of a second epidemic wave," the authors wrote.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said that by the summer, the city's contact tracing team will have the potential to monitor a quarter million New Yorkers.

"That is the level we're going to reach, a quarter million people who will need help and support to help them through this disease, to keep all the rest of us safe as well," he said.