RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave North Carolina public health officials a public pat on the back for using text messages to tell people when they’ve tested positive for COVID-19.
“It means we’re doing a good job of both the action and the data capture,” said Erika Samoff, a disease surveillance manager for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
But does the shout-out to state officials carry the same weight if the numbers that went into the report are nearly a year old?
Two of the authors who helped put the report together and submit it to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report say it does, and that one of the reasons for the time lag was because it simply took a while to compile and interpret all those numbers.
“The reason for the data coming from December was the process and the time that it took to do that careful analyzation of the data and send it off for many edits with the MMWR editors,” said Laura Farrell, the lead author and contact tracing program manager for North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. “And that process simply took time.”
The report broke down how many people who tested positive were notified of their result within 24 hours. For any testing-and-contact-tracing surveillance system, speed is key.
It says from Nov. 23, 2020, through Dec. 23, 2020, only 15 percent of patients with a positive test were notified. The state’s automated text messaging system was implemented on Christmas Eve, and that rate jumped to 56 percent in January.
But it raises another question — with so many other states using text-notification systems, why was North Carolina singled out?
Samoff says part of the reason was that our state simply had the staff availability to write the five-page contribution for the peer-reviewed publication.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services proposed the results to the CDC for submission, just as it did for a previous MMWR inclusion in July that broke down the state’s progress at vaccinating minorities.
And Samoff says the state also had “the linkage between our text data and our demographic data.
“We could look at who our texting reached — and who it didn’t — across the state,” she said. “And maybe that was the extra thing that was interesting to the MMWR.”
Those texts also were the first step in contact tracing — which has become exponentially more difficult as the pandemic drags on into its third year.
“It was easier when cases were fewer,” Samoff said. “How it’s evolved is that we brought more technological tools into the mix.”
Those text messages and emails come with a link or a phone number to a call center run by the Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative, which has hundreds of people who trace the contacts of people testing positive.
“So when somebody got a text, they got a number that said, ‘You can call this number for more information’ and then went to the state call center, which we operated,” said Wendy Sauce, director of the Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative.
Public health officials are concerned that those contact tracers might get even busier in the near future, with the state averaging nearly 2,000 new cases per day — its highest level in roughly a month — as fears mount about yet another winter surge.
But Samoff says the texting system has the agency and the state even better prepared.
“We’ve got it ahead of time. It’s got a lot more capacity … and it’s really running like a finely oiled machine now,” she said. “So I think in a lot of ways, including this technological contact tracing way, we’re better prepared to manage this surge.”