Contact tracing allows Temple University and the City of Philadelphia to track COVID-19 outbreaks and contain them by reaching students and residents who may have been infected before they spread the virus further.
Temple’s Student Health Services developed the Contact Tracing Unit during the summer to conduct interviews with students who are COVID-19 positive and advise other students who’ve been in close contact with them to quarantine and get tested.
With Temple planning to test 26,000 students and faculty per week next semester, the university’s COVID-19 Contact Tracing Unit will add more full-time tracers.
The Contact Tracing Unit now has five full-time tracers and six student volunteers, said Kara Reid, the manager of the Contact Tracing Unit.
“Contact tracing is the foundation of disease surveillance,” Reid wrote in an email to The Temple News. “It’s the core component of disease control and key to understanding the spread of disease especially when dealing with a novel disease and a lot of unknowns.”
Reid, who has a master’s in public health from George Washington University, worked in disease surveillance for five years with communicable diseases, including measles, mumps and Ebola. She joined Temple’s Contact Tracing Unit in early September and oversees the contact tracer recruitment and training.
“Having Kara come on board to manage, direct and focus on the contact tracing has been a fantastic asset to Temple University,” wrote Mark Denys, the director of Student Health Services, in an email to The Temple News.
When the Contact Tracing Unit is alerted to a positive student case, Reid assigns it a contact tracer, who tries to reach out to the student by phone or email within 24 hours to set up an interview, she said.
In the interview, contact tracers ask about students’ infectious periods, other students who had close contacts with them and where they were during their infectious period, Reid said.
“[Students] understand the importance of being honest with where they’ve been and what they’ve done, so that we can try to slow down the spread, and everyone can go back to a relatively normal college experience,” Reid said.
A close contact is defined as spending 15 cumulative minutes within six feet of someone who tests positive for COVID-19, Reid said.
Contact tracers also give COVID-19 positive students information about quarantine and isolation housing at Johnson and Hardwick halls, Reid said.
Contact tracers interview any student with a close contact, while the Philadelphia Department of Public Health interviews non-students with close contacts, Reid said. Contact tracers keep the COVID-19 positive student’s identity anonymous to other students.
Asymptomatic students should get tested seven days after a close contact, while symptomatic students with a close contact can get tested earlier, Reid said.
“I think most students are cooperative, so [I’m] very proud of Temple,” Reid said.
Reid estimates that 95 percent of students who test positive for COVID-19 respond to the Contact Tracing Unit’s request for interviews.
Until September, the City of Philadelphia assisted the university with contact tracing, but since mid-September the university’s Contact Tracing Unit has handled all the cases for Temple students, Reid said.
The Contact Tracing Unit shares all of its cases and close contacts with the city so it doesn’t reach out for duplicate interviews, Reid said.
University contact tracing helps ease the burden on the city’s contact tracing program, Reid said.
“[University contact tracing] has been a boon to the city because the high number of new cases these days means that there are too many people for our staff to contact trace,” wrote James Garrow, a Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesperson, in an email to The Temple News. “Teams like Temple’s are providing a valuable service to help stop individual outbreaks and to learn about how the disease is being transmitted.”
The College of Public Health designed Temple’s contact tracing training course, a 10-hour online overview of COVID-19, ethics for contact tracers and isolation and quarantine measures, Reid said. The program ends with a mock phone call to a close contact student.
Reid trains contact tracers with more mock scenarios after the contact tracers have completed the College of Public Health’s program, and she oversees their calls until they’re comfortable, she said.