Idaho health officials explain latest contact tracing efforts, use of 'Sara Alert' system

Published: Jun. 3, 2020 at 12:17 PM MDT
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Idaho health officials are explaining their latest efforts in contact tracing, and their use of the

system in supporting the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a spokesperson from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Idaho's seven health districts received a total of about $7 million to respond to COVID-19, some of which may be use for increased contact tracing efforts. While the seven health districts are separate and autonomous, with demand from COVID-19, many have added additional staff or are in the process of increasing capacity for contact tracing.

Contact tracing is nothing new. It's been utilized in public health dating all the way back to the

, and is a critical component in any response to an outbreak. Local public health epidemiologist have been utilizing contact tracing to contain COVID-19 since the onset of the outbreak, here in Idaho.

“That just means we’re reaching out to every person that was in close contact with a confirmed case," said Brianna Bodily, a spokesperson for

. "It’s very important during the entirety of a pandemic.”


is diagnosed with an infectious disease such as COVID-19, laboratories and healthcare providers provide basic information such as name and the persons birth date to local and/or state pubic health agencies.

Local public health epidemiologists then connect with the diagnosed person, and ask them to identify to the best of their ability everyone that may have been in close contact while they were infectious.

"Close contacts are people who were within six feet of that person for more than 10 minutes while they were infectious or two days before," Bodily said.

The "close contacts" are informed they may have been exposed to someone who had the infection, but are not given the identity of the patient in order to protect patient privacy. Close contacts are interviewed and recommended to stay home, self-isolate and monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 until 14 days after they were last in close contact with that person. During that time, contact tracers will check in with that person to ensure their self-monitoring and find out whether or not they're developing symptoms.

"The close contact monitoring is actually quite simple," Bodily said. "If it's one person, it doesn't present a huge load on our case investigator. Sometimes though somebody has gone out and about, they've gone to work, to an event, they've gone to a close gathering and there's a huge group of people we have to reach out to."

South Central Public Health is currently taking

for contact tracers and COVID investigators.

"When you ask how many or if we have enough contact tracers or investigators, it really depends on the week, depends on the day, it really fluctuates quite a bit," Bodily said.

Health officials at both the local and state level are prepared for the need for contact tracers to increase, especially if more waves of COVID-19 are discovered in the coming months and possibly the fall.

Dieuwke Dizney-Spencer is a deputy administrator within the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare Division of Public Health. She's been working closely with Idaho's seven local public health district on Idaho's strategy and plan for increasing the capacity for COVID-19 contact tracing. On Wednesday, in a

on the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Facebook

she discussed how Idaho is preparing to meet additional need for contact tracing .

"To help meet that need Idaho is in the process of training contact tracers, and over 250 have been trained statewide and training is actively underway," said Dieuwke Dizney-Spencer. "Currently trained individuals include local public health staff, medical reserve core members and others. University students, volunteers, other people that have reached out to local public health districts wanting to be involved and help with this effort."

In addition to increasing staff, local public health agencies will use data tools to help in managing case investigations and contact tracing. A system called Sara Alert has been selected to assist Idaho health officials in this task, according to an email to KMVT from Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Public Information Manager, Niki Forbing-Orr.

"Sara Alert is a secure software tool that allows for the self-reporting of any symptom onset for the period of monitoring, up to 14 days," Forbing-Orr said. "Engagement with public health staff and the tool are voluntary and at the individual’s discretion."


system has been utilized by

states to support monitoring and reporting of COVID-19. Sara Alert was developed by

, a not-for-profit organization that operates federally funded research and development centers. The standards-based, open source tool, was developed in collaboration with major public health organizations according to its

and is free for use by state and local public health departments. In a blog post on

and the Facebook Live on Wednesday, Dizney-Spencer explained how the system allows patients and close contacts to report daily symptoms through web, text, email, or over the phone during the 14 days of monitoring

"The way that would work is, say you'd like to be notified by text every afternoon," Dizney-Spencer said. "You'll be sent a text that will have basically sort of like a little survey. Do you have a fever? Do you have a cough? Do you have any other symptoms?"

Dizney-Spencer said the process takes just a few short minutes and if the answer is "no" to the questions on that day, a person can go about their business. If a person answers "yes" or is showing symptoms a contact tracer will get in touch with that individual, an assessment will be made if it's appropriate for that person to seek medical attention.

Privacy concerns over contact-tracing apps and the potential for privacy abuses to occur through their use has been expressed by private citizens and garnered attention in the U.S.

. A common concern has been whether or not a contact tracing application is being utilized to monitor a person's location through their phone.

"Idaho is not using any apps or technologies to track individuals movements in the contact tracing process in Idaho," Dizney-Spencer said. "There certainly are apps that do that but we are not using them."

State health officials

Sara Alert does not track movement or retain information about contacts after the 14-day monitoring period ends.

"Sara Alert does not:

-Track patient movements. There are no plans to track patient movements now or in the future.

-Use involuntary processes (such as turning on locating information on the patient’s phone).

-Retain information about contacts after the monitoring period (up to 14 days) ends." Forbing-Orr stated in an email.

Patients and close contacts always choose if and how much they participate in this process of contact tracing, but it's strongly encouraged by health officials so disease transmission can be monitored and stopped.

"We encourage people to participate if they are contacted by a contact tracer so disease transmission can be monitored and stopped," Forbing-Orr said. "If people choose to not participate, that makes it more difficult to keep people healthy in the middle of a pandemic."

You can find more information on contact tracing efforts in Idaho

, and a Facebook Live of DHW’s Dieuwke Dizney-Spencer explaining those efforts is included in this article. Anyone interested in applying for the position of Contact Tracer/Monitor or COVID Investigator with South Central Public Health, can find more information on qualifications


DHW’s Dieuwke Dizney-Spencer discusses contact tracing and COVID-19.

Posted by Idaho Department of Health and Welfare on Wednesday, June 3, 2020