UAA Steps Up to Help Address Need for COVID-19 Contact Tracers
One of the methods being implemented to address the ongoing spread of COVID-19 is contact tracing: when someone tests positive for COVID-19, a trained and qualified healthcare professional identifies with whom the individual was in contact during the period of time he or she may have been contagious. The healthcare professional will then follow up with those people (keeping everyone’s personal information confidential), informing them of their exposure and identifying with whom they have been in close contact—and the process continues.
Contact tracing is important. There are documented cases of patients who tested positive for COVID-19 and were asymptomatic, which means people may spread the virus without any idea that they have it. Contact tracing can inform individuals who may feel healthy—or who have mild symptoms they attribute to allergies or other causes—of their risk to others, allowing them to get tested or quarantine as appropriate, hopefully reducing the spread of the virus.
According to Gloria Burnett, director of the Alaska’s Area Health Education Center (AHEC) program at UAA, it’s been projected that Alaska requires 500 contact tracers to adequately meet the state’s needs. “Public health nursing was primarily completing contact tracing and they had about 100 to 150 people working on it; they knew at that point that there was going to be a need for a surge workforce to supplement their efforts,” Burnett says.
The UAA College of Health’s Division of Population Health Sciences developed the curriculum component of the program. “My side of the house, the AHEC program, we do a lot of workforce development and training, so we really understood the logistics of the registration, administration, and the recruitment,” she says. As conversations about the need continued with the Alaska Division of Public Health, “We discovered it was more than just contact tracing training… the project was a little bit bigger than we originally had thought in that [the state] wanted us to also hire on surge workforce through the University, in addition to training them.”
As it’s currently set up, training to be a contact tracer takes from twelve to sixteen hours and covers identifying and reaching out to potential cases, monitoring confirmed cases, investigation, and team supervision. “The training is completely online, asynchronous, so that people have flexibility,” Burnett says. “We were really cognizant of the fact that we have a lot of people working and multi-tasking and that if we had set times that would really limit who could participate.”
The program is taking advantage of UAA’s Blackboard course management system, though it took some troubleshooting to get non-students access to the platform. “Now we have 508 people actively registered for the course, with 189 of those completing the course successfully to-date,” Burnett reports. She says in total more than 1,000 people have expressed interest in the program.
Most of those participating in the contact tracing training have experience in the medical field, though anyone can apply. The program is prioritizing who to train first based on a tier system: Tier 3 includes clinical providers, nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians, or physicians assistants; Tier 2 includes health professionals such as medical assistants, physical therapists, occupational therapists, counselors, or social workers; and Tier 1 is comprised of entry level workers such as CNAs, community health aides, or College of Health students.
“We are in the midst of onboarding our first few cohorts of Tier 3,” Burnett says, which will serve as supervisors and “will give us increased capacity to start to relieve the workload and burden on our public health nurses who have been doing all that great, hard work to date.”
Those who have been trained are conducting contact tracing remotely from their homes. “We have been working our way through the kinks, and we are adamant about assuring [people] that our tracers are adhering to security policies and making sure that health information is secure,” she says. Each contact tracer is issued a ChromeBook that is encrypted, up-to-speed, and up-to-date with all of the necessary tools to ensure data is secure. The documentation is taking place on an app called CommCare, specifically developed for COVID-19 contact tracing that has been implemented in many other states, including New York.
Overall, at this point the process of finding, training, and setting up additional contact tracers is going smoothly, Burnett says, but it took a lot of hard work to get there. “It feels like we’ve been building the ship as we’re recruiting the crew, as we’re chartering course—and we’re hitting storms every step of the way,” she laughs. “A lot of that has settled, and the training’s a lot more stable right now than it was early on… we’ve been building as we go and trying to be responsive to what the state was discovering as they went along.”
Burnett is proud of the partnership between the university and state that has resulted in a robust program that is now producing a well-trained and critical workforce in a very short amount of time. “One of the things that’s been really rewarding and brought pride to me is knowing that there is value, from the University perspective, to what we can add and what we can contribute to things like this when we are in a time of crisis. We’ve been able to respond not only to the training needs but to supplement hiring needs and utilize the expertise that we have to enhance what they’re able to do at the state level… I’ve realized the great collaborations that can exist if we put the health and well-being of Alaskans at the forefront of what we do.”