According to a recent NPR survey of state health departments, the national coronavirus contact tracing workforce tripled in just six weeks, jumping from 11,142 workers to 37,110—and public health researchers say it needs to grow even more.
Recent surges in cases underscore the importance of reopening countries, states, schools, and businesses carefully and as safely as possible—when the time is right. Given the magnitude of COVID-19, organizations in both the public and private sectors are tasked with effectively training contact tracers and equipping them with the right tools to contain outbreaks of the virus in their communities. But what is contact tracing, exactly? How does it work? And where can technology help?
What is contact tracing?
Contact tracing is an infectious disease control measure. It involves reaching out to exposed individuals to provide support and reduce transmission, using technology to maximize responses and manage data.
How does contact tracing work?
Before implementing a contact tracing program, the university, corporation, or organization should understand a few key concepts it will come across as it does so.
- Informing contacts
- Supporting contacts
- Building the right tech stack
The contact tracing process starts with a case investigator reaching out to an infected individual to offer support and help them identify people they were in contact with while they were contagious (contacts). A contact tracer then informs contacts as emphatically as possible. As a privacy measure, contacts are not told who might have exposed them.
When communicating with cases and contacts, tracers must lead with humanity: cases and contacts are likely worried, disappointed, afraid, and impatient—and understandably so. Part of being empathic and human-centric means offering support services whenever possible. Beyond informing contacts, the role of a tracer is to kindly and compassionately help exposed individuals better understand their risk, the importance of social distancing and continuing to quarantine, where to find testing, and how to ensure they don’t infect others—even if they aren’t showing symptoms. Tracers should also follow up to determine if and when an exposed person becomes a confirmed case after testing or developing symptoms.
The right stack of tools, technology, and systems is paramount for successful contact tracing. It enables a contact tracing team to effectively reach and communicate with contacts, whether that’s through a traditional channel like the phone, or emerging channels such as SMS or WhatsApp.
Technology also allows contact tracers to seamlessly track and manage the information they collect.
“Technology partners are key in the modification of existing systems and the development of new user-friendly data interfaces to manage multiple data streams with seamless interoperability.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Taking it a step further, Japan even rolled out a contact tracing app. The app was developed by Microsoft and uses Apple and Google’s joint exposure notification platform, which relies on Bluetooth. BlackBerry and Shopify are working on a similar app with the Canadian government. In contrast to traditional contact tracing, proximity-sensing technologies rely on Bluetooth or GPS and electronic self-reporting methods to notify users if they have come in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Some governors in the US have shown interest in proximity tracking tools, but most still prefer human contact tracers—at least for now.
Who is contact tracing for?
Nothing is certain, but schools and universities are considering how to have students return safely, local governments have been planning how to best restore cities to public life, and businesses are thinking about how to transition from mandatory work-from-home environments to optional ones, while COVID-19 is still present. Contact tracing is an important preparation measure for reducing the future potential spread of the coronavirus within these communities. The most common types of organizations with contact tracing programs include:
Schools, colleges, and universities—Hundreds of higher education institutions have announced plans to reopen campus this fall, with precautions. While nothing is definite, Stanford University announced that it will let freshmen, sophomores, and transfer students live on campus for the fall quarter while taking most of their classes online. It also said that juniors and seniors can come back to campus in-person starting winter quarter, 2021.
“COVID testing, contact tracing, and quarantine/isolation will become a regular part of student life.” Stanford University
Most college officials agree that contact tracing is a requirement for letting students return to campus. Since the CDC said that it is unknown if entry testing for college campuses is effective, some universities will specifically focus on contact tracing and those who come into contact with known positive cases as opposed to testing every student, such as Purdue.
- Federal, county, and state governments
- Public health agencies and local health departments
- Corporations that plan to reopen offices—HR departments will likely lead corporate contact tracing initiatives. Corporate contact tracing efforts will likely be paired with commercial IoT technologies, such as touchless office technology and thermal scanners.
- Hire tracers that display a sense of empathy. Tracers communicate sensitive, emotional information. It’s essential that they have the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and the interpersonal skills for human-centric, empathetic interactions.
- Call scripts and/or Macros to keep communications consistent and ensure tracers don’t forget the important stuff.
- A knowledge base so tracers can get up to date information and troubleshoot issues on their own, 24/7. An AI-powered knowledge base can surface relevant knowledge to a contact tracer based on the context of an ongoing conversation for contextual coaching. It can also flag outdated content and content that’s missing from the knowledge base to contact tracing leads.
- User-friendly technology that can be set up quickly to get tracers up to speed without wasting time administering a tool.
- Satisfaction surveys so tracers can follow-up with contacts to understand what they did well—and what they can do better—after each interaction.
Proportion of contacts interviewed
Proportion of contacts notified
Time from first potential exposure to notification
Daily proportion of contacts whose status is evaluated
Proportion of contacts who complete their full self-monitoring period
6 best practices for an effective contact tracing program—and how technology can help
There are two levels to an effective contact tracing program. Tracers interact with exposed individuals directly, and the university, corporation, or organization has to provide the right tools and technology to equip them to do their job well. Success requires implementing a few best practices at both levels.
1. Effectively onboard and train tracers
Just like skilled customer service agents lead to more satisfied customers, contact tracers that are good at their jobs mean more responsive contacts. Given the unprecedented, widespread impact of COVID-19, contact tracing leaders—college and university health officials, a health department, an HR department—have to onboard and train large teams of tracers quickly. Here are a few things to consider:
2. Foster a more convenient and accessible experience
Contact tracing is only effective if contacts are responsive. If the process isn’t convenient and requires contacts to put in a lot of effort, they’ll be less likely to participate. Meeting contacts on the channels that are most convenient for them fosters a more accessible and trustworthy student, employee, or citizen experience, which increases response rate and overall satisfaction.
Some contacts might choose to participate through traditional channels like email or the phone. Others prefer the same channels they use to communicate with friends and family, such as Facebook, SMS, WhatsApp, Twitter, or WeChat.
The asynchronous nature of these newer and emerging channels also helps a contact tracing team scale, allowing tracers to reach out to more contacts faster than they could with a live option like the phone. “The adoption of emerging technologies that can assist private and public health practitioners with client communication, medical monitoring, and strategies to amplify case investigation and contact tracing may greatly help with scaling up these activities as needed,” said the CDC.
3. Leverage automation and AI to boost efficiency
Efficiency is essential to an effective contact tracing program—tracers have no time to lose. Automation and AI can take over some of the time-consuming, manual tasks, making them natural partners to a contact tracing team. “Case management tools can help automate key pieces of the case investigation and contact tracing process, making the overall process more efficient,” explained the CDC.
With a contact tracing solution that builds in automation, contact tracing leads can seamlessly direct certain cases to tracers with specialized skills, such as those who speak a specific language or are trained for more advanced cases. AI can pre-populate responses for tracers with relevant resources based on the context of the conversation for faster replies.
4. Connect data and communications in a single hub
If tracers can’t access the contact information they need on each case, when they need it, they’re essentially left in the dark. Contact tracing teams will want to connect data and communications in a single hub so tracers can easily access all the context they need, such as a contact’s name, location, previous symptoms, or the last time a tracer reached out—regardless of channel.
This prepares tracers for each interaction, whether they’re reaching out to an infected person and their contacts via the phone or live chat. If contacts have to repeat the same information each time a tracer follows-up or wait on hold while the tracer searches for relevant details, they aren’t likely to remember the experience as a positive one.
5. Adhere to security guidelines
Security is imperative to contact tracing. A contact tracing team will need to ensure its tools and systems are FedRAMP, HIPAA, SOC 2, and IOS compliant to follow medical care information guidelines and proactively address privacy concerns.
6. Track the right metrics
With real-time trends and analytics, contact tracing leads can track team productivity, identify areas for prioritization, visualize queues, and fine-tune their outbreak response on the fly. Metrics are also key for visualizing the rate of exposure. A robust reporting system paired with automation can help a contact tracing team quickly identify, understand, and report on the metrics that matter. “Ideally, data systems would also include automated reports to aid in monitoring progress and outcomes of case investigation and contact tracing,” said the CDC.
A few metrics the CDC recommends a contact tracing team pays close attention to include:
Improving the contact tracing experience builds trust
In a world where the only constant is change, universities, governments, and other organizations across the globe are having to get their contact tracing programs up to speed amid market volatility and increased uncertainty. But it’s this dedication to their communities that students, employees, and citizens will remember. Improving the contact tracing experience is an important way for civic leaders and HR Directors to help students, citizens, and employees feel more connected and trusting of their school, local government, or workplace.