Researchers study science of memory to improve COVID-19 contact tracing

Updated: Jul. 22, 2020 at 10:59 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Health officials continue to stress the importance of contact tracing in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Right now, the Pima County Health Department is accelerating it’s efforts after awarding a $10 million, six-month contract to Maximus Health.

Now, researchers at Florida International University are studying how to improve contact tracing by tapping into people’s memory.

Psychologists Deborah Goldfarb, Jacqueline Evans and Ronald Fisher are leading a new study funded by an NSF Rapid Response grant to identify a more effective way to conduct contact tracing.

“One name could stop lots of different infections,” said Jacqueline R. Evans, Ph.D., FIU Associate Professor of Psychology.

Effective contact tracing relies on a complete list of names. The problem is that those names are stored in one’s memory and getting to that memory relies on contact tracers asking the right questions, the right way.

“Often a lot of people really just don’t remember, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the memories,” said Dr. Evans.

If you test positive, the Pima County Health Department wants you to start with the contract tracing process by filling out a this form. It will help you note where you were while you were contagious and who you were with.

In the past, PCHD Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said had doubts on the accuracy of information being provided.

“We find a vast majority of cases tell us they have very few contacts. We actually don’t think that’s accurate, but we go with what they tell us,” said Dr. Cullen.

Dr. Evans said a survey, like the county health department’s form, is a good strategy to start with.

“There is evidence that self-administered interviews can be useful and most of that research has actually looked at it in the context of giving people the survey right away,” said Dr. Evans. “Usually it’s about a crime. Giving a booklet right away and that helps you to remember if you’re interviewed later, as well.”

If and when you get a call, the county said a PCHD contact tracer will ask similar questions, including a list of all of the places you went to while you were symptomatic in addition to the two days before you started feeling sick. They will ask for a list of people you have been near – within six feet – during that same time period. If you got tested without having symptoms (asymptomatic), we’ll ask about your activity during the two days before your test date.

Dr. Evans said the contact tracer should ask the same question, multiple ways, to probe someone’s memory.

“Maybe first say, think about the people you interacted with in your home. OK, now think about the people you interacted with at work. Think about the people you interacted with in social situations,” said Dr. Evans. “Just kinda, giving additional cues and not letting ‘that’s all I can remember’ being the end of the interview.”

The FIU team will also examine the effectiveness of two types of contact tracing efforts: a live interview via video-conferencing and a self-administered online survey format.

“It also means that it’s on your own time, right? So, if it’s not a good time to get a phone call, right, you’ve got maybe kids asking you to do something. You’re feeling particularly sick at that moment You can wait and do the survey in a couple of hours when you have your own time,” said Dr. Evans. “You’re not worrying about being judged by the person on the phone because you went to a party with twenty people when probably you shouldn’t have. You don’t have to worry about, you can just provide the information.”

Dr. Evans points out the self-administered format is less expensive and less resource-intensive. It doesn’t require recruiting or training thousands more contact tracers. Their self-administered test is going to incorporate the cognitive interview approach.

“If there are many contact tracing interviews that are done effectively, that could have a huge impact for a community or for society,” said Dr. Evans.

During a second phase of the study, researchers will look at whether memory for contacts can be improved across different age ranges. Specifically, this study will test whether people between the ages of 9 and 90 recall more contacts when questioned using the cognitive interview compared to a standard contact tracing interview.

The team hopes preliminary results will be implemented in the real world early this fall.

This study is funded through FIU’s Global Forensic and Justice Center.

According to the PCHD, contact tracers will never ask you for your social security number or bank information. They may confirm your name and date of birth.

The Contact Tracing Team will not share your identity with any contacts you identify as possible exposure.

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