LSU is a leader in state's contact tracing
LSU’s Stephenson Disaster Management Institutewas entrusted last May with ramping up the state’s contact tracing program with a $1 million contract from the Louisiana Department of Health, or LDH. Since then, its role has greatly expanded.
Within two weeks of receiving its contract from the state in early May, SDMI helped train 15-20 agents so they could begin making phone calls. Case interviewers started reaching out to those who had recently tested positive for COVID-19 to collect symptoms, ask if they needed assistance such as healthcare, housing, food or otherwise and determine if they could have exposed others to infection. The current threshold set by the state is at least 15 minutes within close proximity. Next, the names of those who could be infected were passed to contact tracers who would reach out to encourage a 14-day quarantine.
The program grew quickly. Within a month, SDMI had assisted call centers in onboarding and training nearly 400 agents. Two weeks ago, as positive cases started to significantly increase, they began working with the four call centers contracted by the Office of Public Health, or OPH, which falls under LDH, to add an additional 250 agents, for a total of 700 case interviewers and contact tracers. SDMI now effectively coordinates the effort for the entire state with separate call centers in New Orleans, Lafayette and Monroe.
Initially, SDMI and OPH focused on providing self-paced training to new agents via a Moodle-based learning management system customized and managed by SDMI students and staff. This job then expanded to now include direct training for all new agents on the software platform used by the state to conduct contact tracing. Although education remains a central component of the work, the LSU institute’s role has grown. With a team of six LSU computer science students, SDMI Director Brant Mitchell now offers technical support for the state’s software platform to all agents, including those who aren’t working out of traditional call centers but their own homes, due to social distancing requirements.
“It’s been an expanding role,” Mitchell said. “Since the agents are handling protected health data, the information has to be secure. We need to make sure they’re trained to use properly configured office equipment, have a base level of proper cyber etiquette and understand the threats to operating safely in a digital environment, such as knowing what a phishing email looks like, understanding the impacts of ransomware and knowing how certain applications can be used to deliver malware.”
An additional group of SDMI computer science student workers have been involved in developing dashboards for OPH leadership so they can monitor several aspects of the contact tracing program at once. Colorful graphs and maps, with the state split into nine public health regions, connect users with a live feed to see the number of agents enrolled in training or having completed specific courses as well as how many agents are actively working in each region and parish. SDMI is in the early stages of developing a new dashboard built specifically for hurricane season to ensure state planners have access to tropical storm data and COVID-19 information in a single location to help prepare for possible evacuations—including of those who would or might be evacuating with COVID-19.
SDMI was recently tasked with reviewing several of the state’s continuity-of-operations plans to make sure they are updated with the latest information on how to sustain the contact tracing program.
“Our call center in Monroe is very important for hurricane season,” Mitchell said. “If we have any type of infrastructure disruption down here in south Louisiana, the contact tracing program will still need to continue. That’s why it’s critical to have resources in north Louisiana.”
An important aspect of contact tracing is making sure calls aren’t just made but answered. The program is working with local news media to make the outgoing phone number of the call centers known. It is also working with independent cell phone carriers, so phones will flash “Louisiana Department of Health” instead of a potentially unknown number.
“There are, as you might understand, several aspects to a state-wide effort of this scale,” Mitchell said. “Louisiana actually had a robust contact tracing program before this, but outbreaks in the past were small enough that state epidemiologists could do the contact tracing themselves or leverage staff within the Louisiana Department of Health. Now OPH has invested in a custom application to conduct contact tracing that is built off a widely used software platform called Salesforce. As a result, we have a world-class platform in place to manage the current epidemic that will be available to assist with large events that may happen in the future. Our ability to ramp up and respond will be significantly greater next time, allowing Louisiana to get in front of it instead of playing catch-up as we’ve all been doing across the country because no one was ready for this.”
As an emergency management center and applied research center, SDMI continues to refine its contributions to the state’s contact tracing program on all levels—training, data security, software development, privacy protection, continuity of operations, hurricane planning, monitoring, as well as evaluation of the performance of individual call centers and the effectiveness of the overall program itself. As the state’s needs have evolved, SDMI staff and students have brought more skills to bear on the contact tracing effort.
“As the program continues to grow and there is a new area that needs assistance, we are able to offer our support and expertise to address the issues and develop workable solutions to continue moving the program forward,” Mitchell said. “We all want to get back to normal and having a robust and effective contact tracing program is part of that process. If we can use our resources to help the state fight the pandemic and disrupt the disease, that’s something everyone here at SDMI can be proud of."
We’re thankful to have this opportunity to play a role in the state’s overall response.”