October 16, 2020

Contact tracing is a critical part of the strategy to mitigate the spread of COVID-19—globally and right here on WPI’s campus. 

Contact tracing investigations have found that most people have 2 to 10 close contacts, creating a spiderweb of contacts that could quickly multiply, exacerbating the pandemic. By connecting with the close contacts of people who have tested positive for the virus, it not only warns them to be alert for symptoms and to be tested, it also helps get them into quarantine.

“Contact tracing helps stop the spread of the virus,” says Jen Hapgood-White, WPI’s Isolation/Quarantine Coordinator. “We know that, on average, one infected person infects four others, and each one of them infects four more people. If we could quickly contact those first four, we could greatly lessen the spread.”

In light of the ongoing pandemic, this past August, WPI hired Hapgood-White—along with a new Director of Health Services and a Testing Coordinator—to expand the Health Services staff to better provide care for the community. Prior to joining WPI, Hapgood-White worked for Community Tracing Collaborative, an organization developed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) and Partners in Health to help local health departments conduct contact tracing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here at WPI, she has continued to focus on case investigations and contact tracing, while also serving as the primary contact and advocate for all WPI students in isolation and quarantine, managing the day-to-day support of their health and recovery.

While contact tracing is a key part of fighting COVID-19, it’s not a new practice. Contact tracing is credited with eradicating smallpox, which, until it was declared wiped out in 1980, had existed for 3,000 years and killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone. It has been used to fight the spread of Ebola, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted diseases. And now it’s assisting Hapgood-White in her efforts to help protect the WPI community during this pandemic.

For each positive case, Hapgood-White says it can take up to four hours to complete contact tracing. She also provides information to the DPH, which is keeping track of the state’s infection rate. Here’s how it works

  • Hapgood-White receives a report about anyone who has tested positive. If that person is faculty or staff, they can expect a phone call from someone at the DPH and possibly from WPI’s testing coordinator or isolation/quarantine coordinator. 
  • Students are contacted by WPI’s testing coordinator or isolation/quarantine coordinator to begin contact tracing. Students also might be contacted by someone at the DPH, which often conducts its own investigation. 
    • A contact tracer will ask that person where they think they might have been exposed to COVID-19. It generally takes 2 to 14 days for COVID-19 to manifest, so investigators need to know where the patient had been in that time frame—such as playing Frisbee or basketball with someone who later tested positive. This information helps health officials identify clusters, or cases tied to a residence hall or an event. 
  • The tracer also will investigate who that person’s own close contacts might be, asking where they’ve been and who they've been with. They’ll also ask who that person lives with.
    • The tracer will collect names and phone numbers of that person’s own potential close contacts in order to follow up with them. 
  • Hapgood-White also helps students manage academic needs, moving to isolation, and delivery of food and other supplies.

“People might not remember where they were two days ago, so we try to prompt memories,” says Hapgood-White. “

While the Health Team will conduct the contact tracing, they also will also provide information on being tested and how to quarantine. 

Then, separately, a clinician will talk with them about their symptoms and medical issues in a separate phone call or meeting. 

Being a close contact means living in the same household as a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, caring for a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, being within 6 feet of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more with or without face coverings**, or coming into direct contact with secretions from a person who has recently tested positive by sharing utensils, kissing, or being coughed on, for example.

Here are a few examples of what are and what are not close contacts:

  • A person taking a class with someone who tests positive would not be considered a close contact because both were wearing a face covering in the classroom and sitting at least 6 feet apart. 
  • Similarly, if a student in a class tests positive, the professor or instructor would not be a close contact because everyone in the class was wearing a mask and sitting six feet apart. 
  • Out of an abundance of caution, students living on the same floor of a residence hall with another student who tests positive might be considered close contacts because they shared the same bathroom. 
  • People eating lunch within six feet of someone who tests positive would be a close contact due to the lack of face coverings while eating and drinking.

Hapgood-White says she knows some people are anxious about privacy issues surrounding contact tracing, but she said it’s a confidential process, with information shared only with the local board of health and the DPH. She also noted that when the Health Team or someone from the DPH calls close contacts, they do not give out the name of the patient the person came into contact with.

“The contact tracer will never ask for information like your Social Security number,” says Hapgood-White. “They’ll ask for your address, your date of birth, your race and ethnicity, and about employment, all of which is used to understand the virus, the groups the virus is hitting the hardest, and how it’s moving through the community. If we find 10 people who worked at the same place, the local board of health should know that so they can work with that business to mitigate further spread.”

It’s Hapgood-White’s job not only to investigate close contacts but to give people—particularly students—information about the virus and guide them through the healing process.

“We are virtually holding the hand of the person we’re working with, helping them get through their illness and quarantine, helping them get resources and get connections made,” says Hapgood-White. “We will be the ones to say, ‘Hey, how is today going? How are you feeling?’ If they are feeling alone or struggling in some way, we’ll help them. That’s a good feeling.”

—Sharon Gaudin

**UPDATE 10/29/20: The CDC's close contact definition has now changed to include being within 6 feet of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 for a cumulative time period of 15 minutes or more over the course of 24 hours.