Hundreds staff call center tracing spreading of coronavirus
OKLAHOMA CITY — In a cubicle farm in nondescript office space about four miles from the state Capitol, the Oklahoma State Health Department calls thousands of Oklahomans a day, with many getting some unwelcome news.
“I am calling today because you have been named as a contact to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” the script goes.
The script then varies depending on whether someone has symptoms or not, but in both situations, the person is urged to get tested, if they haven’t already, and stay away from other people.
“Have a nice day!” the script for each concludes.
The call center, where case investigations are also conducted with people who tested positive, has been up and running since June 8 and is funded with federal coronavirus aid. The staff numbers nearly 420.
About 280 staff members call the contacts of positive cases in the process known as contact tracing, with the goal being to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus by isolating as many people as possible who were exposed to the “patient.”
Interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye said the work can reveal clusters of cases and prompt action by the department, as with the outbreak at the meat-packing plant in Guymon.
The lag between testing and getting the results back limits the effectiveness of the tracing, he said. Some labs have been taking several days, even weeks to return results, allowing people who have the virus to spread it further.
“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 said.
About 85% of the results returned to the health department were from tests collected within the previous two weeks. The remaining 15% “were even further out than that. So it does affect things,” he said.
The addition of a health exchange, a centralized electronic system in which labs can enter information, will help officials speed up the process, he said.
Amanda James, contact tracing center project manager for the health department, said the coronavirus contact tracing operation started on paper, with spreadsheets.
A new software system was created, and Frye said Google was helping to refine the “front end,” to determine new cases more easily from previous positives who were retested.
The department has conducted contact tracing with other diseases in the past, Frye said, but that was done in-house.
“So setting up an operation of this size was new,” he said. “We’ve never had to do it at this magnitude before.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt, who helped launch the first calling operation that included members of the Oklahoma National Guard, toured both floors of the new center last week and walked among the cubicles thanking workers. The center makes between 2,000 and 3,000 calls per day, and receives about 300 calls per day, James said.
“It’s an important job to find out who’s got it and isolate,” Stitt told Frye and James during his tour, adding that no one had caught it from him last month when he was infected. Stitt also told them that he had caught it from friends visiting him from Tulsa.
The health department used a personnel service to get employees, who receive two days of customer service training, with a particular emphasis on confidentiality.
“You cannot tell the Contact the Case-patient’s info, though you may have to disclose the location or event in which they were exposed,’’ the script says in bold typeface.
And, given the resistance many have shown to any steps taken by governments to slow the spread of the virus, callers conducting case investigations with people who tested positive are told how to respond if the patient “advises that they will not comply with isolation recommendations.”
“Thanks for your time,” the script reads. “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.”