Contact tracing is a numbers game – we need to be ready

Published: Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

When it comes to a COVID-19 outbreak, speed is of the essence and timely contact tracing crucial. Epidemiologist and communicable diseases expert Professor Mike Toole of Australia’s Burnet Institute says that to contain an outbreak is relatively straight forward when case numbers are low, but when cases spike the number of calls that contact tracers need to make explodes and backlogs are inevitable. He says that to reduce transmission and bring an outbreak under control “you need to turn the tests results around within 24 hours and contact trace most contacts within 24 hours”.

With the contact tracing numbers that need to be traced growing exponentially there’s a risk that contact tracers will be overwhelmed, leading to a backlog of cases and extending the time taken to trace all cases. When time to reach most contacts extends beyond 24 hours, transmission increases and the number of new cases increases. And so it goes, spiraling out of control.

No technology will magically reduce the duration of tracing calls or the number of calls tracers have to make before they get through. It’s a numbers game – the more cases to trace, the larger the number of tracers required to meet the 24 hours goal.

Scaling up contact tracing quickly to meet the challenge of a COVID-19 outbreak generally means enlisting people who have not performed the task before. It’s a tough job, especially if you have never done it before. And in these circumstances there’s simply no time to train people – they must pick it up on the job.

Panviva’s knowledge management system has been implemented in several contact tracing initiatives as the support system for the contact tracers, providing them with the processes and procedures they need to perform, and the scripts they need to adhere to. We have seen this dramatically reduce training and the time for new contact tracers to become effective.

A community’s readiness for the inevitable future waves of COVID-19 infection rests on being able to quickly implement contact tracing at scale. Having an effective support platform for contact tracers that can be deployed within hours of an outbreak is a critical weapon in the community’s arsenal.

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