Lewis and Clark Public Health recently switched to automated COVID-19 contact tracing to quickly notify people who test positive for the virus of isolation instructions.
It started a few weeks ago and so far has managed to reach over 1,000 COVID-19 positive people.
So what is automated contact tracing? It starts with a text message sent to someone who tests positive for COVID-19. This text provides information on isolation and includes a secure link to a COVID-19 case investigation form. The form collects data points useful to public health to better understand how COVID-19 is affecting our community. It only takes a few minutes to answer questions and is HIPAA compliant and secure, keeping the individual’s information private.
Why did public health switch to automated contact tracing? With the Omicron variant, the number of cases increased at a rate that overwhelmed our public health team of nurses and contact tracers. Additionally, the shortened isolation and quarantine guidelines made it very difficult to access cases before the isolation period was over. This led to frustration among residents and slowed the process of slowing the spread of the virus. In some cases, the delays meant that county residents didn’t hear about a contact tracer until long after their isolation period ended.
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To help reduce frustration and delays, health department staff turned to automated processes in other Montana locations, such as Missoula, Gallatin and Flathead counties. After researching the best way to balance technology, ease of use for the public, and the public health requirement to conduct a case investigation of every individual who tested positive for COVID-19, the decision was made to concentrate on an SMS solution.
Using texts to convey information to residents quickly and efficiently better streamlines processes and, in turn, provides isolation instructions to residents in hours rather than days. Additionally, the automated system also prompts cases to notify close contacts of potential exposure. This helps inform close contacts of quarantine recommendations and lets them know to consider testing at least five days after exposure and certainly if they become symptomatic. Contacts can be tested at our community testing clinic. Please visit our website to schedule an appointment.
For residents without a cell phone or number unreachable by text, the health department is still using follow-up emails or calls to ensure that all necessary information is reaching county residents. If you do not complete the form, you will receive a follow-up SMS 1-3 days after the initial SMS. Completing the form in a timely manner helps LCPH better understand the impact of COVID on our community.
The automated program rolled out earlier this month and, from a technology standpoint, is working well. So far, about 1,100 texts have been sent successfully, with a return rate of only about 35% for completed COVID-19 case investigation forms. We understand that the system is new and that the Omicron wave seems to be dissipating; however, the information provided forms the basis for tracking any outbreak in our county and is reported to the state and the CDC.
If your COVID-19 test is positive and you receive a text message from public health, please take a few minutes to read it and complete the form. The number we will text from is 406-213-1444. Thank you for your support and please call us at 833-829-9219 with any questions.
Laurel Riek is administrator of the Division of Disease Control and Prevention at Lewis and Clark Public Health.