The Future of Contact Tracing in a Post-COVID World

In the article Justin Beck, the Founder and Chief Visionary Officer at Contakt World, talks about common misconceptions around contact tracing in a post-COVID world, and introduces a novel state-of-the-art contact tracing solution.
10 min read
07/15/21
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By Daniel Piekarz
Sr. Vice President, Healthcare & Life Sciences, USA
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The Future of Contact Tracing in a Post-COVID World

2020 was defined by upheaval. The way we live, the way we work, interact, and protect our communities were called to question as the COVID-19 pandemic unraveled around the world. The threat was, in theory, invisible — but its implications were not. We had to act, and we had to act quickly to protect those vulnerable to the highly transmissible virus. Now, 15 months into what has been a historically difficult time around the globe, we see the promise of a long-awaited recovery on the horizon, thanks to the incredible efforts of medical experts and contact tracing initiatives around the globe.

Contact tracing is hardly a novel concept. This process of identifying individuals who have contracted an infectious disease and those at-risk individuals who they have come in contact with has been used in past pandemics, such as SARS. As Edwards Deming famously said, «You can’t manage what you can’t measure,» and, in the realm of pandemic response, we cannot control an outbreak without identifying the source of its spread through a given community. Monitoring exposure is a crucial part of identifying high-risk regions and environments and helps to inform response efforts such as isolation periods, lockdown measures, and emergency declarations.

But as with any global event, with great disruption comes great lessons. Looking at our pandemic response under a critical lens, we realize that the true scope of the COVID-19 prevention strategy requires foresight into the handling of pandemics in the future. While contact tracing has been an undeniably critical aspect of the current pandemic response, we must recognize that it is only one piece of a much bigger picture while proactively dismantling the misconceptions that have permeated over this experience. COVID-19 will not be our last pandemic, and, with the right technology and innovative minds working together, we can ensure we are better prepared to face the next threat of this scale and impact.

Contact Tracing and Vaccines Are a Coordinated Defense

For many, the promise of a local COVID-19 vaccination program represents the hypothetical light at the end of the tunnel. After a long year of adhering to public health recommendations, vaccines are, in many ways, the perceived gatekeeper to any return to normal. While the continued roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines is undeniably promising and worthy of celebration, it is essential to recognize that the accessibility of vaccines does not diminish the need for contact tracing.

Contact tracing investigations have found that most people have 2 to 10  close contacts, creating a ‘spider web of contacts’ that could quickly multiply. However, contact tracing infrastructure goes beyond simply preventing the spread of a virus; it also offers important information regarding where transmission occurs across communities. This data helps to inform the response framework for a pandemic, as well as continued prevention efforts. Famously, contact tracing is associated with the eradication of smallpox in the 1980s. Without the digital architecture we rely on now, experts at that time put thousands of people on rooftops to isolate disease clusters and better administer the limited amounts of vaccines available. Using a combination of contact tracing and vaccines, they were able to encircle a disease cluster and eradicate it, effectively eliminating the smallpox outbreak that would have otherwise claimed the lives of over 300 million people.

Concerning the way diseases such as COVID-19 work, we must acknowledge that variants emerge from places where there is high transmission and, often, there will not be vaccines available in those areas for years. To this effect, the vaccines that are currently available are integral to our recovery, but they are not a blanket solution. As variants continue to emerge, our vaccination protocols will continue to evolve, and contact tracing initiatives must remain in place. Contakt World has created the digital equivalent to the smallpox contact tracing efforts by developing a case management system that finds, traces, monitors, and communicates with cases to empower a state-of-the-art contact tracing program.

Contact Tracing: The Patient Experience

Traditionally, if a patient received a positive test result, this information was sent to a local health agency from the clinic or testing center they visited. This data was often sent via an archaic format (such as fax, phone, or email) to be manually processed by an employee at the local health agency, who would then contact that patient by phone. In the past, public health agencies were notoriously plagued with a lack of resources and technology, despite increased capacity demands during a pandemic such as COVID-19.

To mitigate these historic challenges, Contakt World’s system securely integrates testing results with the local health agency or other sources. Its patent-pending software segments the risk of a patient based on a number of factors, including onset date of symptoms, close contacts, exposure source, and dates for positivity. «Putting this information into our Smart Health RM case management database means the contact tracer is in a fully informed position,» shares Justin Beck, the Founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Contakt World. «The patient is de-identified to protect their privacy, and the contact tracer can interact with them via phone, text, email, or interactive voice recording using a proven script that is most likely to stimulate a response via our Smart Connekt system. Through this process, we are effectively removing the data silos that have traditionally plagued contact tracing initiatives. To contain smallpox, a limited number of vaccines were leveraged efficiently by tying contact tracing data with disease clusters. We are just building off the lessons from Dr. Bill Foege, who shared some of his precious time with Contakt World in 2020.»

Once individuals have tested positive for a disease case like COVID-19, they are asked to input information regarding their close contacts directly within the Smart Health RM database, which is securely stored. Those close contacts receive a first and second layer risk identification according to the information provided by the patient and Contakt World’s algorithm. Enhanced proximity detection allows for the prioritization of high-risk contacts and helps to inform the public health recommendations given to each contact. «It is all about reducing the data silos and inspiring patient action through trust, and we are doing it all with the system we have built with DataArt,» shares Beck.

The Importance of Disease Surveillance

By integrating testing data with contact tracing data, Contakt World can identify and isolate disease clusters, facilitate disease surveillance, and establish a targeted approach to stop a contagion. «With the dashboards we are building with DataArt, we will know that Oceanside California, for example, suddenly encountered a high degree of transmission, and that might be a place where public health officials focus their containment efforts,» explains Beck. «So instead of implementing broad lockdown measures or making arbitrary decisions that will negatively impact global economies, we can make decisions in a more targeted manner based on data, rather than politics. It is really just a function of the connection of disparate systems and making sure we are operating on fully informed data.» Contakt World intends to add strain surveillance and other features to its system over time to add even more context for experts to utilize, so testing, tracing, and strains can all be linked.

Currently, Contakt World is helping enable the largest health equity initiative in the world with Satcher Health Leadership Institute and Morehouse School of Medicine, called the Health Equity Tracker Project. This initiative aims to highlight inequities and disparities in healthcare by shining a light on the data. It will also analyze jurisdictional policies that exacerbate or alleviate COVID-19 outcomes, comorbidities, resource allocation/management, jurisdictions’ response, and mitigation strategies. Preceding the launch of the Health Equity Tracker Project, Contakt World co-founder Robin Coleman represented the company within a comprehensive task force consisting of public health experts, leaders from diverse racial and ethnic minority groups, members of United States Congress, and executives from several leading public health organizations like National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), CDC Foundation, and Association for State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO). «What we are doing is uncovering data genocide, as Abigail Echo-Hawk puts it, which is the deliberate destruction of data so that nobody understands the disparities that exist in our healthcare system,» explains Beck. «You can not fix what you do not see. Through Smart Health RM’s deployment at health agencies and providers, we are going to help Health Equity Tracker Project collect de-identified data so we can further attribute data to comorbidities and health equity implications for vulnerable populations. Only then can we fix it sustainably.»

Creating a Public Health Ecosystem

If there is one thing we learned during this pandemic, the best-laid plans of technology companies failed because they assumed that everyone would want to use it if they made an app. Historically, user adoption has always been a sticking point of innovation. Even now, we recognize barriers to adoptions across many of the platforms and programs developed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. With this in mind, Contakt World leverages their in-house ad agency as part of their SaaS solutions, as well as their podcast Contakt World: Truth in Health, and partnership with iHeartMedia (Nasdaq: IHRT) enabling them to reach up to 250M Americans monthly, to empower agencies to implement the CDC’s Vaccinate with Confidence program. These campaigns will also help Contakt World deploy its technology and encourage public buy-in. No other SaaS company has case management, contact tracing, scaled community engagement, and a communications suite within a portfolio of public health solutions.

«Let’s say we identify a state, county, or city that has residents who are vaccine-hesitant,» says Beck. «We can create advertising targeted precisely to the hesitant demographics, serve the advertising across all mediums necessary with targeted calls to action that pull them into Smart Health RM, and then we can communicate with them via text, email, interactive voice recordings seamlessly through the system we have created with DataArt. We now have the best ecosystem in public health. We believe technology and communications must be inextricably linked, and have developed the only SaaS platform for public health of its kind. Thanks to DataArt and the solutions we have developed together, we are ready to save lives, and we are going to prepare public health agencies, providers, long-term care facilities, and more for anything else that comes our way in the future.»

So far in 2021, the system they have built with DataArt and media they have produced with iHeartMedia has won a BIG Innovation Award, 2 AVA Awards, 2 Stevie Awards, and 2 Honorable Mentions from Fast Company for World Changing Idea. Beck says, «We are just getting started, and appreciate the recognition so far.»

Effective contact tracing goes beyond transmission control, including genomic surveillance of strains, integrated contact tracing and testing, and vaccine validation. We must combine tried-and-true processes of the past with cutting-edge technology that is rooted in health equity. The innovative design of Contakt World’s disease prevention and management approach is not simply a solution for COVID-19, it will also help us in the future as new strains of COVID-19, and other pathogens, emerge. We will now be in a position to do something about it.

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