Columbia and Boone County’s health department plans to automate its contact tracing efforts of COVID-19 positive residents through a secure data collection software called REDCap.

The software was created in 2004 at Vanderbilt University to track medical and research data. The health department would join the REDCap Consortium, giving it free access to the software.

Contact tracing is the process of identifying and notifying anyone who may have come in contact with a person who tests positive for COVID-19. It also includes checking on patients for the weeks following their positive test to determine whether they are still at risk of spreading the virus. Across the country, contact tracing has stood out as one of the most promising tools to battle the spread of COVID-19.

The county conducts daily symptoms checks via phone on 15 COVID-19-positive residents, Stephanie Browning, the director of the health department, said last week.

REDCap would automate the process through a daily text or email message asking about symptoms and how the patient is feeling. It also will contact people who may have come into contact with that patient, recommend they get tested and provide quarantine education. The process is optional, private, secure and HIPAA-compliant, Browning said. Patients who prefer phone calls would receive them.

“Let’s say you’re a case,” Browning said, “And we need to contact you and check in on you every day. You probably don’t want a call or email from us every day.”

The program is available in multiple languages. Those languages will be determined by the health department based on community needs.

The St. Louis County Department of Public Health uses the software for its COVID-19 response.

“It’s working remarkably well,” said Amanda Brzozowski, a communicable disease epidemiologist at the department.

When someone in the county tests positive for COVID-19, the department enters that information into the REDCap database, then monitors the patient. REDCap tracks all of the county’s cases.

More than 4,200 institutions from 137 countries use REDCap for various purposes, said Paul Harris, the Vanderbilt professor who invented the software.

Since its creation, Harris said it has been used by research teams to record the results of their studies and by hospitals to store patient data.

“We actually saw a new use for it when the Ebola crisis almost hit the U.S.,” Harris said. “And when COVID came along, that was a perfect opportunity to sort of spin that into even higher gear.”

Groups ranging from the University of Maryland to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases are using it for contact tracing to help reduce the infection rate of COVID-19.

In terms of data security and privacy , Harris said, “about two years after we created the platform, we recognized that Vanderbilt wasn’t the only place that needed to give their research enterprise an easy way to do the right thing.”

“I kind of made a decision at that point. I’d like to share it, but it’s kind of hard to share software,” Harris said.

That’s where the consortium came in. Harris created it as a way to help expand the software to new institutions and in doing so, he created a sort of collaborative group.

“Every time we would grow and add another group, we would try to impose on people, we’ll give it to you, but you should give something back,” Harris said.

Initially this meant member institutions would help with coding the software. Later, member institutions would serve on committees. The consortium has grown large enough, the service requirement is no longer needed, Harris said.

Brzozowski said the county health department chose REDCap because it is Internet-based — which made it easier for department employees and volunteers to learn and use — and customizable.

“The two cautions I would give are, one, that there is a learning curve especially for those without database experience,” she said. “And the other thing is that we sort of created ours backwards.”

“If we had the luxury of hindsight, we would probably have implemented it in a different order,” she said.

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • I'm a reporter covering city and county government and other public life topics and an assistant city editor. I also study investigative journalism at MU. Reach me at wksg8b@mail.missouri.edu. You can also find me on twitter @WillSkipworth.

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