Student-run contract tracing program ‘highly effective’ in curbing COVID-19 transmission, report shows

The UIC COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Epidemiology Program — a novel, student-driven program — helped reduce COVID-19 exposures and infections on campus during the 2020-21 academic year, according to results published today in the American Journal of Infection Control.

The program, which deployed UIC students to conduct COVID-19 case investigations and contact tracing among nonclinical UIC community members, proved to be a highly effective pandemic-response effort in a university setting, the results show. 

“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,” said Jocelyn Vaughn, research data scientist in the School of Public Health and one of the paper’s lead authors. “Universities should consider utilizing students in COVID-19 and other infectious disease response efforts.”

In August 2020, Vaughn and colleagues created UIC’s contact tracing program, which was staffed by a fully remote workforce of public health practitioners and trained students. The program was approved by the Chicago Department of Public Health.

“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,” Vaughn said. “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, contact tracers interviewed nonclinical students and employees who tested positive for COVID-19 on campus or self-reported their results. Their goal was to reach all cases and contacts within 48 hours of specimen collection or exposure notification.

From Aug. 31, 2020, to May 22, 2021, UIC contact tracers 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, preventing an estimated 132 downstream exposures and 22 COVID-19 infections. Among 18 identified clusters, contact tracers were able to more than 100 infections, the data shows.

“This program provides exciting evidence that nonclinical university students can be efficiently engaged to provide rapid, thorough and cost-effective investigation and contact tracing to supplement local public health departments’ pandemic response efforts,” said Linda Dickey, president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.






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