Is contact tracing enough to slow the spread of COVID-19?

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In many states across the U.S., contact tracing paired with rapid testing has been an effective tool to slow the spread of COVID-19. Now, as schools, businesses, and organizations prepare to reopen during the ongoing pandemic, those efforts will need to be amplified to prevent a new wave of infections, said a panel of people who have been working as contact tracers.

The panelists, all three of whom are students in or graduates of the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern, offered insights working as contract tracers in Massachusetts since April during a July 23 webinar hosted by Bouvé on the importance of contact tracing.

Meredith Patterson, a care resource coordinator with the Massachusetts Community Tracing Collaborative who is studying for her master’s in public health, suggested that the drop in cases in Massachusetts could in part be attributed to the coordination of resources such as food and medication or housing and mental health services to help people safely quarantine and isolate after they received a positive test result.

Screenshots by Northeastern University

“Going forward, it’s something we’ll have to figure out economically and logistically: How do we make sure in every state there is a contact tracing and care resource coordination effort as extensive as the one in Massachusetts? Because we’ve seen that these efforts have been successful,” said Patterson. “From a national perspective that’s definitely something we have to keep in mind is how do we have equity in response throughout the states?” 

Magda Pankowska, a recent graduate who studied infectious diseases at Northeastern, said rapid testing and diagnosis will be crucial and that one way of accelerating that process is by finding a way to notify patients of their results virtually. Her colleague, Cassandra Dechaine, said she worries that efforts to reopen could divert resources such as COVID-19 tests away from vulnerable communities.

“I think that there are a lot of moving pieces that need to be taken into consideration and monitored really closely as we start to reopen,” said Dechaine, a second-year student pursuing a dual degree in law and public health.

Pankowska and Dechaine are volunteers for the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps, a group that was formed in the spring comprising public health students and graduates and aimed at buttressing the capacity of local health departments across the commonwealth not only to respond to COVID-19, but also address other areas of public health need.

In the four months of working as contact tracers, they said they’ve encountered language barriers, challenges in connecting people of different backgrounds with the appropriate resources, and people who have anxiety while awaiting their result because of testing delays.

“A big part of communicating results back to people is making sure that we’re communicating very rapidly,” Pankowska said. “People shouldn’t be waiting a long time between getting tested and getting communications about what the results are and the next steps they should be taking, because it not only makes people feel anxious and stressed out, but also [we want to] ensure that when people do test positive, they’re able to isolate.”

Neil Maniar is a professor of the practice in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences Bouvé College of Health Sciences, and the director of Northeastern’s Master of Public Health program. Screenshot by Northeastern University

The panelists said that reaching out to certain communities, such as undocumented immigrants, is another challenge contract tracers and case investigators commonly face. Many of these community members are reluctant to share information about themselves, said Patterson. Diversifying the public health pipeline with people of different races and linguistic abilities could help solve this issue, she said. 

“When we continue to diversify our workforce and we bring new people with new backgrounds and new identities into our work, populations aren’t difficult to reach anymore,” said Patterson.

The Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps is led by Neil Maniar, a professor of practice and director of Northeastern’s Master of Public Health program who facilitated the July 23 discussion as part of the Women Who Inspire at the Forefront of Healthcare webinar series, which aims to highlight the voices and experiences of women in Bouvé who are working on the front lines of the public health crisis.

The next webinar, on July 30, will focus on the impact of the pandemic on people with serious mental illness and on disordered eating. Panelists will discuss strategies to support mental health and well-being during the crisis.

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