Coronavirus contact tracing is ramping up, along with online training to fill the gap

Alan Boyle
Contact tracing is a key part of the strategy for corralling coronavirus. (University of Washington Photo)

The Washington State Department of Health is in the early stages of a massive effort to interview COVID-19 patients and track down those who might have been infected by those patients.

Contact tracing is a tried and true technique, typically used to stem the spread of infectious diseases ranging from tuberculosis to measles to gonorrhea. Now it’s part of the strategy for getting the coronavirus pandemic under control.

“Contact tracing is going to be an essential part of our reopening and containment efforts moving forward,” said Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. “We need to trace every contact possible, because every contact counts in stopping this disease.”

But contact tracing is a time-intensive process that involves interviewing each person who has tested positive for COVID-19, determining who’s recently been in close contact with that person, contacting those people, getting them tested — and then starting over with those who test positive.

Previously: How testing and contact tracing work together to quell COVID-19

The state’s tally of confirmed cases passed the 19,000 mark this week, and roughly 150 new cases are being reported every day. The goal is to get in touch with each COVID-19 patient within 24 hours of a positive test, and track down all of that patient’s contacts within 48 hours.

Before the pandemic, about 630 local and state public health professionals were available in Washington state to do such work. Now more than 700 National Guard personnel and more than 750 employees from the state Department of Licensing have been trained to help local health agencies with the task as needed.

To add to the challenge, the National Guard deployment is currently scheduled to end in a little more than a month. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has asked to have that deployment extended through July, but to supplement the current contact-tracing corps, state officials are also reviewing applications from thousands of Community Health volunteers.

Across the nation, public health agencies may need to add tens of thousands of contact tracers to their ranks — and that means they’ll need to be trained.

UW’s Northwest Center for Public Health Practice has set up an online course called “Every Contact Counts,” designed to teach the basics of contact tracing to public health professionals and volunteers.

“We were keenly aware of the strain public health workers and agencies were under, long before the novel coronavirus hit,” center director Betty Bekemeier, a professor in the UW School of Nursing, explained in a news release. “As COVID-19 spread, we knew from practice partners that a training [course] was needed for the public health workforce that ​could quickly and efficiently assist a wide variety of public health agencies. This training is intended to help health departments expand their existing workforce to control this disease and save lives.”

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The free course, which takes about 90 minutes to complete, draws upon Baseman’s curriculum and was developed in partnership with the Kansas Health Foundation. After registering and logging in, you click through a series of lessons about contact tracing and COVID-19. At the end of each section, an online quiz tests your knowledge.

Even if you’re not intending to become a contact tracer, taking the course will teach you a lot about how the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads — and what has to be done to stop it. And if you’re thinking about volunteering to fight the pandemic, “Every Contact Counts” could give you a head start.

“Public health professionals around Washington now are well aware of the UW training module and indicating strong interest,” Bekemeier said in comments emailed to GeekWire.

For more information about volunteering, check out the Community Health Volunteer website and the Washington State Emergency Registry of Volunteers.

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