New FIU study aims to improve contact tracing methods

Writer: Drew Hill
Published: Updated:
Drive-thru COVID-19 testing (AP photo)

Many health experts recommend social distancing, washing your hands and wearing a mask as a way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Another way to help slow the spread is through contact tracing.

“Essentially, what it allows you to do is reach out to somebody before they know that they’ve been exposed and tell them you’ve been exposed, you could be infected and you need to self-quarantine and get tested,” said Florida International University psychology professor Jacqueline Evans.

Evans does admit there are difficulties with contact tracing. That is why she and a group of other FIU professors are working on a study that can improve contact tracing simply by using the science of how the brain works.

“Often if we ask somebody a question they answer. We think that’s the end of the answer and we move on, but what we know about memory is if you ask somebody something once there’s at least a chance they left something out. If you were to ask him again or at least in a different way they would be able to remember it now after that second attempt,” she said.

“Basically we’re comparing the sort of basic contact tracing interview to an enhanced technique that uses what we know from psychology,” Evans said.

A document from the Florida Department of Health partly explains how contact tracers are able to do their jobs effectively. While sample questions include where patients have traveled and the types of contact they’ve had, Professor Evans thinks even more can be done.

Evans said, “Instead of just ‘who do you live with? Anybody else you’ve had contact with?’ Instead, we’ll break it down more— ‘Who have you seen at home? Who have you seen at work? Who have you seen that social minute? Who have you seen while using transportation?'”

Evans wants to stress the importance of asking the right questions for contact tracing interviews because of how quickly the virus can spread from person to person. Asking the right questions could be the difference between contracting and not contracting COVID-19.

“That could potentially keep that person from going out and spreading it to others who are spreading it to others,” Evans said.

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