Geisinger’s new contact tracing program can help identify those who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus to prevent further spread.
Contact tracing is a method used by health professionals to track diseases that spread from person to person, like Ebola and measles. It’s also one of the most effective ways to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Identifying people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and encouraging them to self-quarantine to prevent its spread is hugely important in flattening the curve — so Geisinger has established a contact tracing program to do just that.
"Whenever someone tests positive for COVID-19 at a Geisinger testing site, we reach out to ask who they’ve had close contact with in the last few days," says Keith Boell, DO, Geisinger’s chief quality officer for population initiatives. “We then reach out to the individuals they identify to let them know that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus.”
This includes anyone they:
- Came into contact within 6 feet of for longer than 10 minutes
- Live with
- Share an office with
- Sat within 2 seats away from on an airplane
- Provided care for (including parents and children)
Contact tracing: How it works
If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, a Geisinger provider will work with you to recall anyone you have come in close contact with in the 48 hours before your symptoms began.
If you know the names and phone numbers of the people you’ve been in close contact with, a member of Geisinger’s research team will call those people. Without identifying you, the researcher will tell the person they may have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19.
“When we contact anyone who may have been exposed, we’re not disclosing the name of the person who has tested positive,” Dr. Boell adds. “We take everyone’s privacy and protected health information very seriously.”
Once they reach the people you’ve been in contact with, the team educates them on the steps they should take. This includes self-quarantining and staying away from others for 14 days, which is critical in preventing further spread of COVID-19.
"We specifically ask the individuals if they have symptoms, such as a fever of more than 100.4 degrees, coughing or trouble breathing," Dr. Boell says. "We’re also checking back in on them at 7 and 14 days. We do anticipate some are going to develop COVID-19."
Anyone who has been contacted through the contact tracing program and is having symptoms of respiratory illness — as well as anyone else — should contact their primary care doctor or call the Geisinger coronavirus hotline at 570-284-3657.
From concept to reality
While contact tracing isn’t currently a focus of research at Geisinger, teams across the health system came together to build the program quickly.
As many national discussions linger around using smartphone apps or GPS for contact tracing, leaders at Geisinger believed a phone call will be helpful — and save precious time in the fight against coronavirus.
Led by chief innovation officer Karen Murphy, PhD; Les Kirchner, PhD, chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences, Research Division; and Dr. Boell, Geisinger’s contact tracing initiative came together in about two weeks.
“It’s been incredible,” Dr. Boell says. “We’re blessed to have many wonderful thinkers and problem-solvers who are super motivated and working around the clock to help our communities and patients.”
While contact tracing will likely be used for the next several months during the pandemic, Dr. Boell adds the most important thing you can do to help stop the spread of COVID-19 is practice physical (social) distancing.
A COVID-19 positive result. What’s next?
While it used to take several days, test results for COVID-19 at Geisinger are coming in quicker.
“Our turnaround time used to be a several days — now most of our test results are done by Geisinger’s laboratory and coming back within 48 hours,” says Dr. Boell.
The good news is that most people who test positive for COVID-19 can rest and recover safely at home and will not need to be hospitalized. If you are diagnosed, call your primary care doctor, as they know your history and can provide advice on how best to recover.
If you’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and your symptoms are mild, here’s what to do:
- Immediately self-quarantine at home for 14 days, staying away from everyone else in your household.
- Get lots of rest.
- Stay hydrated by drinking lots of fluids.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can dehydrate you.
- If you do not have an appetite, stick to a diet of bland foods like broth and toast.
- Use acetaminophen to control a fever (only after consulting with your doctor).
- Practice good hand hygiene to keep yourself and others safe.
- Monitor your symptoms and contact your doctor if they worsen.
If your symptoms are severe, worsen or if you have difficulty breathing, head to the closest ER. If possible, call ahead of time to let them you know you are coming, and you have tested positive for COVID-19. If you are alone or in distress, call 911.