The state has launched a new automated system aimed at buttressing its contact tracing program to better combat the spread of COVID-19.
Sara Robinson, director of the infectious disease epidemiology program at the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, said Friday that the new system called “Situational awareness and response assistant (Sara) Alert” is taking the pressure off its staff of 15 contact tracers by checking in daily with Mainers identified as having been exposed to the virus.
Here’s how the system works, Robinson explained.
When someone has been tested positive for COVID-19, an investigator from the Maine CDC will call that person.
During a routine case, an investigator will work with the person who has the virus to identify their “close contacts,” defined as people that have been within 6 feet for 30 minutes or more, she said.
Often, that’s someone in the person’s household, sometimes it’s coworkers.
When the investigator gets that information from the person identified as having COVID-19, they will enter that case into the agency’s electronic surveillance system, Robinson said.
That data is taken from the electronic surveillance system and is given to her department’s contact tracing team.
The contact tracing team’s enrollers are given that person’s name and their phone number and the enroller calls that persons’ contacts to let them know that they’ve been potentially exposed to COVID-19. They will recommend that that person go into quarantine for 14 days. They also will asked each of them a series of questions, including how they’re feeling and whether they have symptoms, Robinson said. They’re asked whether there are any other people in the household who need to be monitored.
That person is then enrolled into a different electronic system, called Sara Alert.
This system, rolled out last week, keeps track of those quarantined cases for 14 days by reaching out to them through a computer generated automated system by email, phone or text.
The new system checks in with them everyday to make sure that they’re still asymptomatic, Robinson said.
If, after 14 days in quarantine with no exposure, they’re still asymptomatic, then Sara Alert will release them from quarantine, she said.
But if at anytime during that 14 days they become symptomatic, that information is conveyed by the Sara Alert system to a human contact tracing monitor who will see it and refer that person’s case back to an investigator who will identify the person as a “probable” COVID-19 case, she said.
In the department’s contact tracing program, they have 15 paid staff who are redeployed state employees, she said.
The department is expecting to bring in volunteers next week to help with the tracing, which is a daily process, including weekends.
The volunteers are expected to work at least one eight-hour day a week, she said. She is also seeking to hire paid full-time and part-time contact tracers that aren’t state workers who have been borrowed from other departments, she said.
Eventually, she said she would like to have a crew of as many as 100 contact tracers working in her program. They have been able to keep pace with the cases, especially with the help of Sara Alert system, but the exposures maintain an upward trajectory, she said.
Although the new system hasn’t changed her department’s ability to identify the people, which is the job of the investigators, she said: “It’s taken the load off of the investigators to reach out to those contacts.”
“We didn’t have the capacity before to follow up with each individual every day, so that’s what the system is really great for us to do and it does have a check in with them every day we can make sure they’re staying healthy.”
Maine isn’t the only state using the new automated system, she said. Other states, including Vermont, Washington, Arkansas and Arizona, have begun using it and other states are signing up every week, she said.
The new program was developed by a nonprofit and is funded through federal grants at no cost to the state, she said.
“I think everybody is aware that COVID is spread between people and we know that it can be spread before people start to show symptoms, which is why it’s so important that contacts are going into quarantine so that they can’t accidentally infect somebody else before they even know that they’re sick,” she said.
“The important part about the contact tracing is that now, as soon as (people) start to show symptoms, we can identify that and we can follow up,” she said, marking them as “ probable cases.
“So, the Sara Alert system is allowing us to identify these probable cases much more quickly and get them into isolation. And the quicker we can identify it and get people into isolation and the fewer people that each of those individual people exposes, then we can reduce the spread of the disease within a household or within a community. That’s the goal anyway.”
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