Dr. Khaldun: Contact Tracing Efforts Adding Text-Message Features

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WATCH: COVID-19 Town Hall with Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun

Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health for the State of Michigan provided an update on the public health response to stop the spread of COVID-19 including the effectiveness of contact tracing.

The state’s preparation and response to COVID-19 have been underway since January. It has since – and will continue to be – an ongoing effort to ensure Michiganders stay safe and healthy.

“We’re not out of the woods yet…but I’m hopeful we can keep the spread of the disease down,” said. Khaldun. “Until we get a widespread vaccine that’s effective, we’re going to be in this stance for some time.”

In the meantime, Khaldun says we must remain patient and keep up with the simple practices like wearing masks, staying home when sick, and social distancing to keep safe.

Important Indicators

The state is looking at cases and deaths as well as patterns, timelines, and testing capacity. These factors are collectively important to understanding the virus and its status across the state.  Context is key.

“Just like any disease…you don’t just look at one lab result necessarily to tell you what’s going on,” said Khaldun. “There’s not one magic number that tells us if we’re good or bad.”

Fortunately, expanded testing capacity is helping respond to outbreaks more quickly. Khaldun notes that a key indicator of progress is positivity rate – the number of positive test results for COVID-19. Based on the data available at this point, the target is a 3% or lower positivity rate to indicate slowing of the spread.

Key Strategies: Testing and Contact Tracing

Testing
Despite being in a better place with supply and capacity for testing, Khaldun acknowledges that there can always be more. Issues with labs being overwhelmed and delayed with results and the supply chain elements of testing equipment will continue to pose challenges and limitations. However, progress has been made in expanding accessibility to test, with more than 300 testing sites statewide, with partnerships in the work to keep expanding.

Contact Tracing
Contact tracing isn’t new, but it’s more important than ever in managing the COVID-19 crisis. It works by the health department contacting individuals who have tested positive for the virus. Staff conduct case investigations during which health departments interview the patient to determine factors like exposure and travel history, and most importantly, collect the contact information of those the patient may have exposed to the virus. Subsequent outreach to those contacts instructs them to self-quarantine for 14 days, checking in along the way to track progress.

This, of course, has limitations. It is difficult to identify and trace potential exposure in public settings like restaurants, though Khaldun touts the business community’s efforts to connect with local health departments and transparently monitor customers and notify of any potential exposure. Contact tracing is only effective when the individuals who have been exposed are accessible. Challenges have emerged with getting people to answer these calls from the health department, and the state is working hard to build awareness and encourage the public to actively participate in this necessary measure.

“We’re reaching out to at least 90% of individuals who have tested positive within 48 hours,” said Khaldun. “Roughly only two-thirds of them are answering the phone.”

Latest Developments

Many efforts to enhance the participation, accuracy, and effectiveness of contact tracing are underway. The state has put $10 million into local health departments to support additional staffing needs to keep up with this critical work. They are also launching a texting platform to make these contacts more accessible and provide individuals with a heads up to answer these important calls. A two-way texting component is also in the works to make these interactions even simpler for individuals. The MI Symptoms app is another tool making this process easier and more effective. The web-based portal allows individuals to submit and track symptoms – which if indicative of COVID-19, will be flagged to the local health department that will connect with individuals and guide them through the testing, treatment, and tracing processes.

What Businesses Can Do

Businesses have suffered greatly over the course of this virus but can also play a key role in supporting these contact tracing efforts. These include:

  • Follow all public health guidance.
  • Ensure customers are wearing masks.
  • Maintain good cleaning and distancing practices.
  • Connect and stay in touch with local health departments.
  • Start thinking about how to track and notify customers of potential exposure.

Khaldun advises Michiganders to stay patient and be smart about interacting with others to see this through.


Detroit Free Press: Michigan’s evolving contact tracing efforts adding text-messaging features


 

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