TLDR

While technology can help scale contact centers and automate and centralize data collection, some population cohorts lack access to messaging.

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Contact tracing is among the most powerful tools in public health to break the cycle of disease transmission by identifying and alerting those who may have been exposed.

While contact tracing is an age-old tactic for public health practitioners, the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic has created unique realities that both complicate and improve effective contact tracing.

In an ongoing series, we’ll examine those unique realities, including:

  • how new technology can serve contact tracers;

  • the impact of public perception of contact tracing;

  • and how agencies can model the investments required in the coming 12-18+ months to face this public health crisis.

To start, let’s look at the benefits and challenges posed by the use of technology for contact tracing.

Scaling contact tracing and implications for human engagement

The scale of the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, and traditional strategies for epidemiologists to individually call those who have been exposed simply cannot scale.

A state that sees 500 new cases each day will conservatively need to make 10 calls per case to trace contacts. If that state has 100 epidemiologists in place, they’re looking at 50 calls per day, per contact tracer, with a quickly multiplying backlog given low rates of initial outreach success.

Calls are not short endeavors, either—it can take an hour or more to fully investigate exposure and provide the necessary information thoughtfully. The person answering the phone is finding out they have been exposed to a life threatening illness that could take hold over the next 14 days, putting their loved ones at risk. Contact tracers need to be both informative and empathetic, to inspire caution without panic.

Given the tension between the need for human touch and the magnitude of work to be done, the question arises: where are the right places to input technology to scale and automate?

Two key areas where technology can help are budget and bandwidth.

In these areas, technology focuses the expertise of epidemiologists where it is needed most, while ensuring important but rote tasks are accomplished.

See how New York City—the US city with the most COVID-19 cases—is handling contact tracing for its diverse and complex population.

Where automation makes sense

Contact tracing requires experts communicate with a big list of individuals, both proactively to engage those who have tested positive, and reactively, to manage incoming requests from those worried they may be infected. Many people fall within the category of “COVID-concerned;” they may or may not be experiencing symptoms or are fearful they have been exposed, but are otherwise low-risk.

One strategy for engaging this population is to use automated messaging to gather data.

The individual proactively self-reports their daily status, and is guided to take the appropriate action based on their symptoms. This provides support for those who are fearful but not yet tested, to take the right steps in an efficient manner.

With guidance on when to seek medical care, people are less likely to inundate the healthcare system. It also efficiently gets the right people tested early so contact tracing can begin. That ultimately saves money both in human hours devoted to outreach and to treating the most at-need individuals most effectively. A single individual can initiate far more SMS-based surveys than conduct individual calls.

These efforts also create an opportunity to engage and serve those who may not be infected, but are struggling with secondary impacts, like mental and emotional health challenges or access to essentials like housing or groceries.

The limitations of digital engagement

Of course, some population cohorts lack access to messaging or aren’t comfortable engaging with SMS outreach, whether for demographic, geographic, and cultural reasons.

This is an undeniable limitation in technology, but still, the percentage of citizens who are reachable and do engage—often at a higher rate than more involved touchpoints like 1-1 calls—makes a meaningful difference in making connections at scale, despite the limitations.

Current circumstances are unique, but still, customers are well-accustomed to (and show appreciation for) automated bots and self-serve resources to get the information or support they need faster than if they need to make a phone call.

By using established best practices as a guiding star, those conducting the outreach can create messages and self-service options that are more likely to resonate with their intended audience, improving response rates and making such efforts worthwhile and useful.

Watch the on-demand webinar all about how to augment your existing contact center.

Remote contact centers to scale impact

A second important use of technology is to scale contact tracing itself. Epidemiologists, who are in increasingly high demand, need to focus their expertise on the most impactful tasks, like strategic planning or addressing complex cases or outbreaks.

A solution here is to use a well established model from the private sector and other government agencies like Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act: the contact center.

See how organizations across a wide range of industries adapted to serve constituents with rapidly-deployed remote contact centers.

With contact centers, public health agencies can quickly enable agents with the training and tooling to be able to handle routine outreach and tracing.

The key word is quickly—the pace of innovation needed during a dynamic outbreak like COVID-19 is unrelenting. Agencies need the ability to create flexible solutions that allow for changes in a few weeks, not months. A two-week lag can now quite literally mean life or death.

There are two major workstreams to create a nimble contact center:

  1. The infrastructure. Choosing a cloud-based platform provides flexibility to build workflows that can evolve with the changing environment, to integrate with the right patient information systems, to scale quickly, and to easily enable remote tracers. This work can be hastened through implementation partners.

  2. Ease of use. The contact center must be intuitive and easy to use so newly-hired contact tracers can quickly become effective and have the right tools and datasets at their fingertips.

With the tracing workforce scaled and active, the infrastructure accomplishes a critical aspect of scaling: it centralizes investigation data.

Instead of individual epidemiologists tracking data and information on paper and disparate spreadsheets, armies of contact tracers are now able to effectively input data (or empower patients to self-input data) into a centralized repository to allow for the analysis and modeling that creates visibility into potential outbreaks.

This results in public health decisions, like sheltering in place, that are surgical, as opposed to blanket orders, enabling health officials to manage and ideally decrease the spread while empowering government leaders to safely reopen portions of the economy.

Read the guide

Read our COVID-19 Communications Field Guide.

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Communication for good | Spring 2021
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molly friederich

Molly Friederich

As a Sr. Product Marketing Manager at Twilio, Molly explores what problems customers are working to solve. She uses her customer research to guide positioning and go-to-market strategy for solutions that serve marketers and the developers they partner with to engage their own customers.

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