Student-Based Contact-Tracing Program Helps Prevent COVID-19

UIC campus-based model effectively augmented pandemic-response efforts.

November 28, 2022

According to results recently published in the American Journal of Infection Control (AJIC), epidemiologists at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) developed and implemented a novel, student-driven, contact-tracing program that reduced COVID-19 exposures and infections on the campus during the 2020–2021 school year.

Contact tracing is a critical strategy used to control infectious disease transmission, including COVID-19. However, according to a press release from AJIC, the costs of contact tracing programs often hinder efforts by U.S. health departments to expand them. There is little literature on models that mobilize students as contact tracers.

During August 2020, Vaughn and colleagues created the UIC COVID-19 Contact Tracing & Epidemiology Program (CCTEP) to perform case investigation and contact tracing among campus members with a COVID-19 infection or exposure, and to monitor and report on the evolving epidemiology of COVID-19 at UIC. Staffed by a fully remote workforce of public health practitioners and trained students from UIC, the program was approved by the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) and functioned as an independent unit within the university.

“We trained students to conduct both case investigations and contact tracing, which contrasted with the approach taken by most Illinois health departments but provided both flexibility and cost-effectiveness advantages that contributed to our program’s success,” said Jocelyn Vaughn, research data scientist at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health and one of the lead authors of the report. “Routine data translation and dissemination, as well as the partnerships we established with CDPH and departments across the university, were also essential.”

Using REDCap, a HIPAA-compliant data-capture and reporting system hosted at UIC, CCTEP contact tracers promptly interviewed non-clinical students and employees who tested positive for COVID-19 through UIC’s surveillance program, a UI Health clinical site, or off-campus (once self-reported). The goal was to reach all cases and contacts within 48 hours of specimen collection or exposure notification, respectively, which is the standard benchmark of contact tracing timeliness.

From August 31, 2020, to May 22, 2021, CCTEP served 1,009 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 746 contacts. Contact tracers reached 96% of cases in about one day from specimen collection, effectively quarantining 120 cases prior to converting, and preventing an estimated 132 downstream exposures and 22 COVID-19 infections. According to the gathered data, CCTEP avoided more than 100 infections by preventing them from propagating beyond the initial group of exposed contacts.

“Although population-based contact-tracing approaches to help control COVID-19 transmission in U.S. cities have faced significant challenges, our findings suggest that universities are a unique setting where it can be highly effective, particularly when there is strong institutional buy-in for public health interventions,” Vaughn said. “Universities should consider utilizing students in COVID-19 and other infectious disease response efforts.”

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