UDOH Extends Funding for Public Health Contact Tracing Program
Jan 11, 2021 11:00 AM
A University of Utah contact training partnership with the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) has recently been awarded a $3.1 million contract to expand its operations, providing an essential boost to the state’s virus management efforts.
Contact tracing is of the most complex aspects of managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Contact tracers conduct one-on-one interviews with those infected to provide them with important medical information such as the need for self-isolation and then work with the person to identify and alert those in the person’s life who may have been exposed and advise them on quarantine. The work of contact tracing is meticulous and challenging, but it is necessary in order for communities to understand the spread of the virus and contain it.
In June of 2020, recognizing the need for expanded contact tracing to help manage the swiftly-increasing numbers of infected individuals, the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) provided the University of Utah Division of Public Health in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine $2.8 million for the development of a University-based contact tracing program as part of the CARES Act funding. Since then the program has provided much-needed contact tracing support to UDOH’s efforts. The new money will allow the program to continue its work through 2021 as well as prepare resources for future disease outbreaks.
Public health assistant professor Sharon Talboys, who directs the program, credits the success of the program to her team and the resources the University have put at contact tracers’ disposal. Her charge is to recruit, train, and deploy contact tracers for the UDOH. The past year, the U’s contact tracing program has recruited over 500 diverse, well-qualified candidates. Of that number, 391 were hired as contact tracers, making the program a significant job provider in Utah at a moment when many were facing furloughs or layoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The contact tracing position also provided an excellent career opportunity for students graduating in public health, and many of those who started as contract tracers in the summer and fall of 2020 have since been promoted or gone on to full-time employment with UDOH.
“We are pleased that the U’s Division of Public Health can directly support Utah’s public health response and include so many of our public health students in the process,” said Talboys. “Many public health students from the University of Utah and other schools in the region are able to use this as practical experience in public health.” For many of these students, contact tracing has provided real-world applications of their classroom learning and inspiration for graduate-level research presentations.
In addition to providing the state with much-needed contact tracing support, the program also provides contact tracing training to its employees, using the University of Utah Canvas platform. Over 600 people, including both University and state contact tracers, have completed this course. The new money awarded to the program will allow for extended training opportunities, including a continuing education course that will be open to individuals interested in joining a contact tracing reserve corps.
Even with thousands of vaccines being distributed in Utah, contact tracing remains an essential part of the difficult process of identifying virus hotspots and managing the impact of the outbreak on Utah communities. “The arrival of vaccines will not make an immediate impact on our high transmission levels,” said Talboys. “In fact, it will take many more months of non-pharmaceutical interventions, including contact tracing, isolation and quarantine, to bring the pandemic under control.”
“Utah’s public health workforce at UDOH and the local health departments are working so, so hard behind the scenes to protect the public,” Talboys added. “We owe our health departments much gratitude. It is not an easy job.”