By Laura Stotler, Contributing Editor
COVID-19 contact tracing initiatives are booming in Oklahoma, where an entire call center has been dedicated to getting in touch with individuals who may have come into contact with the coronavirus. The call center, located near the state Capitol, is being used by the Oklahoma State Health Department to contact thousands of state residents each day.
According to The Oklahoman, the call center has nearly 240 workers on staff and has been used for contact tracing since June 8. Funded by federal coronavirus aid, the center’s agents call the contacts of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19.
The contact tracing process is designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus by isolating as many individuals as possible who were exposed to a positive patient. The call center has been useful for revealing clusters of cases, including an outbreak at a meat-packing plant in Guymon.
One of the downsides to the call center’s efforts, according to Interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye, is a lag between testing for the virus and getting the results back weeks later, after it has already been spread to potentially many other individuals. Frye said roughly 85 percent of results were from tests within the previous two weeks, while the other 15 percent were from before that.
“Obviously we still need to find who all has been potentially exposed and follow up with them, but we’d like for it to be as real time as possible,” Frye told The Oklahoman.
The contact tracing project has come a long way from its inception, however, and the call center has been a major source of help. According to Amanda James, contact tracing project manager fo the health department, the endeavor began with spreadsheets.
A software system was then created, with Google helping the department to refine the front end. This enables agents to single out new cases from previously positive individuals who have been retested. The project is working to add a health exchange, a centralized system that will enable labs to enter test information to greatly speed up the entire process.
The call center has performed reliably since getting up and running, and makes from 2,000 to 3,000 outbound calls per day. It also receives roughly 300 calls each day. Agents are hired through a personnel service and must undergo two days of customer service training. All agents must work to ensure the confidentiality of the positive patients’ identities.
Agents are also trained to handle resistance from patients who are informed they tested positive but refuse to comply with isolation recommendations. Those individuals are warned, “The Oklahoma State Department of Health has the authority to require your isolation to reduce the risk of further spread to other individuals. An order for isolation can be drafted and served to you.”