Contact tracing during the COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges from the start. Attempting to limit the spread of a highly contagious virus by communicating with strangers who are frequently scared, confused, angry, or all of the above has never been easy.
Lately, though, the burden on contact tracers has become even more draining.
With cases of the omicron variant still spreading across much of the country, it has become increasingly difficult to predict the pace of the virus. This is especially true in schools, colleges, and universities, where numbers have been skyrocketing and just about everybody could be a potential close contact of a positive case.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, schools are still struggling to find ways to cope, while attempting to simultaneously educate students and keep them safe.
Dr. Tania Grimes, superintendent of a school district in Indiana, summed up the dilemma succinctly, calling contact tracing the biggest challenge facing her district.
“It’s very, very time-consuming,” she told WRTV in Indianapolis last month. “And when you have multiple students in a day, it can be a full-time job for someone on some days.”
Dr. Grimes is hardly alone in her frustration. In mid-January, the Maine Department of Education released a statement acknowledging that, “School superintendents have reported that conducting contact tracing in a timely and thorough manner is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for school personnel given the fast spread of the omicron variant.”
One of the best ways for schools to overcome this burden on their own staff, especially during such chaotic times, is to outsource their contact tracing efforts. Having a partner with the knowledge and experience to quickly adjust to unexpected challenges like the omicron surge can make a world of difference.
At PubSEG, we know all about adapting to sudden changes. Whether we’re reacting to an influx of new cases, updated CDC and local health department guidelines, or the increased availability of home-testing kits, we are accustomed to pivoting in the middle of a program and finding new and efficient ways to do the job.
In partnering with colleges, universities, and K-12 schools around the country, we’ve pretty much seen it all. One of the school districts we work with had more than 100 teachers test positive on a single day last month.
“As we get more experienced with different types of situations, our contact tracers are able to work quicker and more thoroughly,” says Dawn Stolte, PubSEG’s Head of Operations.
While the pros and cons of contact tracing amidst the rapid spread of the omicron variant has been the subject of recent debate, most experts agree it is still an effective tool in reducing the threat of the virus. California, where PubSEG has multiple clients, has remained committed to state-wide contact tracing programs.
“Contact tracing remains one of our many key tools in responding to the spread of COVID-19,” said a recent statement from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s press office. “It’s also an important measure utilized in high-risk and congregate settings. Contact tracing assists with notifying exposed people for possible post-exposure treatment, testing, and quarantine in a timely manner.”
Still, in the face of the soaring number of cases, we at PubSEG realize we can’t treat this phase of the virus like business as usual. Like contact tracers across the country, we’ve had to find new ways to deliver the same results.
Here are three of the ways we’ve been able to continue to do the job:
1. Increased secure email communication
The phone is still the most effective way of communicating during contact tracing, but the sheer number of recent cases makes it difficult, if not impossible, to reach out to everybody that way. By increasing the number of secure email notifications, we’re able to ensure we’re still making contact with the right people in a timely manner. If they don’t answer the first time, they get a second email asking them to call us back.
On one of our programs, emails are sent to all our case investigations, and they fill out the details of their case online. PubSEG’s advanced technology allows for seamless—and secure—communication via email or schools’ online portals.
This increased reliance on email communication will help make our contact tracing programs more efficient and cost-effective moving forward, while still complying with all CDC guidelines.
2. Enhanced tracking of vaccine records and test results
PubSEG has created its own platform for monitoring vaccination records and test results, which are both important factors during contact tracing and can help determine which close contacts are most at risk.
Isolation and quarantine protocols vary based on vaccination status and test results, so having an easy way to receive and store these documents, especially for schools that do not use an electronic medical records system, enhances our ability to give accurate guidance. Our custom-designed software allows us to retrieve copies of vaccination cards and validate the accuracy of test results.
Schools have seen students try multiple tricks to avoid quarantine requirements—from submitting the same test result twice to lying about vaccination status. Our platform helps determine if the documentation they share is valid.
3. Communicating to schools the students’ expected return dates
Prior to omicron, we handled this on a case-by-case basis, sending separate emails clearing individual students to return. But this did not provide schools with a convenient way to keep track of return dates for all students in isolation or quarantine.
Since then, we’ve worked with our developers to create a new reporting procedure that collectively lists all students’ expected return dates, making it easier for schools to keep track of this information and quickly determine if students are coming back prematurely.
With so many more students affected in recent months, it was essential that we found new and more effective ways to provide schools with this valuable information. They asked us for it, and we delivered.
With many schools changing the way they’re conducing contact tracing in the face of the omicron variant, it helps to have a partner with the ability improvise and adapt. At PubSEG, we’re always looking for the most efficient ways possible to serve our clients.
Whether you’ve got a plan in place but could use outside assistance in carrying it out, or you’re not certain exactly how to deal with the ever-changing COVID landscape, consider giving us a call. We’re always prepared to help you meet whatever new challenges lie ahead.