Contact tracing brings high-tech approach to tracking COVID-19 cases statewide

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

Smart phones have become the latest tool in the battle against COVID-19.
Data from smartphones is helping track who may have been exposed to the virus with the state of Tennessee employing contact tracers to process this data and reach out to those who might be exposed.
Bill Christian, associate director of communications with the Tennessee Department of Health, said that those who test positive for the virus are asked to use calendar apps, call records, credit card receipts, and other resources to track their movements over the previous two weeks.
“Contact tracing is how we identify people who might have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 during the time period that they were contagious to others,” Christian said. “Public health reaches out and contacts that person who was diagnosed with coronavirus to understand their symptoms, things they did when experiencing the illness, and who they were in contact with, especially close contact during the period of two days before their symptoms started up until the point of the interview.”
Contact tracers then reach out to any individual or business that person might have visited.
“We reach out to the contacts and let them know they may have been exposed to coronavirus and we advise them to be quarantined for 14 days from the time period that they last had contact with that coronavirus patient,” Christian said. “It is important to identify people infected with COVID-19, and those at highest risk of becoming ill with COVID-19 (their contacts). By identifying those people and encouraging them to stay home and away from others, we can limit the spread of the virus in our communities.”
Christian said any information received regarding individuals who may have been exposed is handled in a HIPAA compliant manner and all contact tracers have training on HIPAA and privacy requirements.
Many of those working with the state as contract tracers are state employees whose jobs have been idled as a result of the pandemic.
“We estimate about 350 employees, full and part-time at metro, regional and local health departments are doing contact tracing and monitoring,” Christian said. “We also recently added about 150 people who have been trained to support those doing contact tracing and monitoring. Volunteers are recruited through various mechanisms. Local and regional health departments are using students and volunteers identified through various outreach efforts. For the time being, at the state level, we are using only state employees.”
While contact tracing is gaining national attention because of the pandemic, Christian said this is not the first time the state has used the method.
“Contact tracing is part of daily work for public health staff prior to COVID-19,” he said. “We perform contact tracing for many other diseases: measles, pertussis, and tuberculosis to name a few. Technology is very important in how we are addressing this pandemic. We are dealing with high volumes of data that is updated on a near constant basis – so our technologies and systems are incredibly important in ensuring accurate information and streamlined coordination of efforts.”