Building a Contact Tracing Center: How Do We Go About It?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been very clear since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic – the country needs a reliable contact-tracing solution to safely open the country.
While countries such as Singapore and South Korea are employing phone apps and Bluetooth, the United States has been hesitant to fully embrace a digital-first option. In fact, a recent study by Avira indicated 71% of Americans would not use or download a contact tracing app, most of whom cited digital privacy reasons.
Instead, the U.S. is turning to an option that has been successfully used in health care and public health crises before – human contact tracers.
Staffing contact tracing centers is a rapidly growing effort. According to NPR, the number of employed U.S. coronavirus contact tracers tripled from early May to mid-June, from 11,1142 workers to 37,110 workers. If coronavirus follows the direction most health experts predict, and states aim to reach the 30 for every 100,000 citizens that the CDC recommends, that number could continue to grow in the coming weeks, months and even years.
Where to Begin
Contact tracing has been used to reduce transmission of Ebola, SARS and smallpox, for example, but certainly not on the scale the country currently needs. These past and current efforts have typically leveraged healthcare providers or public health staff to work with the infected patient, gather contact data and make notifications, thus encouraging testing, advising quarantining and reducing the opportunity for transmission.
With coronavirus, contact tracing centers are hiring employees with varying levels of expertise, from a simple high school diploma in Georgia to New York City’s minimum requirements of either a bachelor’s degree in health or science, or a high school diploma with four years’ of job experience in health promotion or disease intervention.
The physical location of contact tracers is also in question. With the majority of today’s contact-center agents working from home as remote agents, how do we quickly create new, large populations of contact-tracing agents? Enabling a contact-tracing workforce in these times may require mixing both in-person contact tracers working on-site at health providers and virtual contact-center workers.
Either way, staffing will require the collaboration of both public and private sectors. While there have been discussions of a national contact-tracing organization, most efforts are being spearheaded by state governments. However, states are turning to private companies for help enabling contact-tracing operations and staffing.
Some states are turning to the private sector for help through outsourcing, choosing to work with business process outsourcers (BPOs) to hand off operations. Others are a result of a partnership where each side provides their own sector knowledge. In most cases, the state and local governments bring public health experience and regional awareness, while private companies supply the expertise in technology that can facilitate a call center-like operations, such as communication infrastructure and workforce optimization vendors, and make a contact tracer’s job simpler.
Staffing the Center, Training the Tracers
A key step in building a contact-tracing operation is finding and training the actual staffers. The pandemic has left a large number of people looking for work, and with existing government and healthcare staff able to be reshuffled, finding contact tracers should not be an issue.
Training contact tracers is more difficult. Interactions with exposed individuals can be stressful and emotionally charged. Tracers, who are often new to the exact role, need to be able to handle these situations, gather as much information from citizens as possible, and be knowledgeable about COVID-19 procedures.
It is important to note that assembling a contact-tracing department or center can be a very quick process; in some cases, an organization can go from concept to calls in a matter of days. And with new contact tracers quickly being added to the workforce, training cannot be a lengthy or methodical process.
This is another area where public health departments are turning to the private sector to lend a hand. Contact-center technology companies, such as those providing workforce-engagement solutions, have the expertise to support both fast and ongoing training in tracers’ day-to-day operations.
For example, even if the center itself is built up in a matter of days, training needs to be scheduled after initial recruitment and before contact tracers are left to handle calls. And similarly, training should be automatically scheduled as an ongoing part of tracing-agents’ timetables so they continue to fine-tune their tracing abilities.
Training is also most effective when supplemented with the quality management software and AI-based analytics already in use in the customer service industry. Both can be used for contact-tracer training and support. With the ability to re-listen to a call, managers of contact tracing operations can determine areas where contact tracers may be able to improve, in addition to having a reliable transcript of what was said during the call so that the frontline teams can focus their energy on providing empathy, rather than taking notes.
Speech analytics can support contact-tracing efforts by tracking trends in patient communications such as through identification of common phraseology. For example, analyzing calls can help locate geographical hotspots, as well as identify symptoms that might be early or late stages of the disease so health departments can continue to better understand the virus.
Just like what contact centers find, fueling predictive insights with AI can allow management to be more efficient in where and how they evaluate the performance of contact tracers and understand citizen sentiment – something especially important owing to the high-stress climate of these interactions.
Due to the fluctuation and rapid response needed with contact-tracing efforts, departments are looking for flexibility in their systems. In the context of contact tracing centers, flexibility means cloud-based solutions and a scalable workforce.
Cloud-based solutions serve as the scaffolding for workforce optimization platforms that can facilitate the workforce forecasting and scheduling needed for a contact-tracing operation. For one, cloud software allows a much faster deployment. Secondly, a cloud-based workforce optimization platform allows contact tracing centers to respond in real time to surges in COVID-19 exposure volumes through expandable and contractable software usage, as well as with dynamic intraday scheduling. With more virtual workers, management needs to maintain adequate staffing by deploying more advanced workforce-management features such as bulk schedule editors, tracer self-scheduling tools and overtime/time-off functionality to handle within-day changes.
In a pandemic that is continuing to evolve, this scalability is needed to combat changes and corral cases before they become clusters, and clusters before they become outbreaks.
Similarly, with different states on different points on the “return to work” timeline, each region will need to decide how they want to facilitate their contact tracing center. Much like all other businesses, some will choose to have more on-site contact tracers, while others may keep their workforce more remote. A cloud-based system can trim down the number of people scheduled to work in one office by 50%. As the country grapples with return to work policies, this flexibility is paramount.
An Evolving Landscape
COVID-19 has been a tricky disease to pin down, and that means that tracing and containment is a challenging prospect. Contact tracing centers, their viability and their implementation will be hot topics for the foreseeable future. In fact, a recent article in The Washington Post called contact tracing the best weapon we have until there is a vaccine.
If that is true, contact tracing centers need to be well staffed, well trained and well supported. That is no easy task, considering the challenges that contact tracers face every day. But with state leaders putting their heads together with private companies, contact tracing centers and tracing agents, the country will experience the benefits of their collective expertise.