Governor Janet Mills announced Tuesday the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is significantly expanding contact tracing by increasing the number of skilled staff and volunteers, harnessing innovative technology, and securing social services to help people with COVID-19 maintain self-isolation, according to a news release.
The State’s expanded contact tracing parallels its major increase in testing capacity, the release noted.
Contact tracing is the process of identifying, assessing, and protecting people who have been exposed to a disease to prevent their transmitting infection to others.
Taken together, testing and contract tracing enable Maine to identify, investigate, and isolate individuals with COVID-19 to prevent its spread in the absence of effective treatment or a vaccine.
“Expanded testing and contact tracing are critical to both identifying and limiting the spread of COVID-19 in Maine,” said Governor Janet Mills. “By increasing the number of people conducting contact tracing and by deploying the new Sara Alert system to assist us, we can improve our efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, protect the health of Maine people, and support our goal of safely restarting Maine’s economy.”
“Maine’s parallel advances in testing and contact tracing are key to protecting the health and wellbeing of Maine people in the face of this pandemic,” said DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew. “Some of our communities have more acutely experienced the impacts of COVID-19, and we are stepping up needed supports for people isolated or quarantined due to exposure to the virus.”
“Contact tracing has been an important part of our response to COVID-19 since the first case was identified in Maine,” said Dr. Nirav. D. Shah, Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC). “Enhancing our contact tracing technology and workforce now allows us to make best use of expanded testing capacity at our lab.”
Maine’s contact tracing strategy has three components:
1. Increasing Personnel
The Maine CDC currently has a contact tracing and case investigation team of approximately 30 people. It expects to more than quadruple this team as needed through the following steps:
Immediately enlisting the help of 50 trained volunteers, who have offered their skills through Maine Responds, a system to tap into health care, public health, and emergency volunteers to respond to emergency situations. These volunteers will assist for at least two months and will start training the week of June 1, 2020.
Begin hiring up to 125 contracted staff over time for up to 12 months to supplement Maine CDC’s work. This hiring will be staggered based on COVID-19 trend data and will include those with proficiency in multiple languages.
2. Deploying Sara Alert System
Maine CDC has deployed a new tool called Sara Alert to support monitoring and reporting of COVID-19 in Maine. The Sara Alert system, which is also used by several other states, allows individuals who have been diagnosed or potentially exposed to COVID-19 to report daily symptoms through web, text, email, or calls. The tool provides real-time insights and increased reporting capability to support containment of the virus. It also enables hospitals and health systems to conduct contact tracing for their own employees. As it deploys the new system, Maine CDC is also working with partners to improve it, including implementing language translations for non-English speaking individuals. Maine CDC began using Sara Alert last week and already has logged 345 contacts in the system as of May 25.
Sara Alert is free for use by federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local governments, and regional health organizations. It was developed by MITRE, a not-for-profit organization that works in the public interest, in close collaboration and partnership with national public health organizations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, National Association of County and City Health Officials, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, and other local and state health departments. Sara Alert has enabled public health workers to monitor and respond to the coronavirus pandemic and to coordinate and direct care where it is most needed.
“We developed Sara Alert with public health for public health,” said Dr. Paul Jarris, Chief Medical Advisor of MITRE’s Health Transformation Technical Center, and former Vermont Commissioner of Health. “Sara Alert has the potential to modernize the public health management of individuals in quarantine and isolation to protect communities from further spread of disease in this and future pandemics. As the pandemic evolves and stay-at-home measures are relaxed, states and localities can use it to strengthen efforts to control outbreaks in less affected areas, and to mitigate future waves of illness and possible rebound effects.”
3. Expanding Social Supports
Staying apart from people for a period of time to protect the public health is a challenge for all, let alone for those who may have low incomes or struggle with housing, food security, transportation, mental or substance use disorders, or access to affordable healthcare and childcare. To address these challenges, DHHS is expanding its social supports for people isolated or quarantined because of exposure to COVID-19 by contracting with Community Action Programs (CAPs). Once finalized, these arrangements will offer individuals in isolation or quarantine social supports such as delivered meals, prescriptions, and behavioral health counselling. DHHS will also contract with Wabanaki Public Health for support for Native Americans. It will engage Catholic Charities, which operates the State’s refugee program, to help with language translation for non-English speakers. Maine DHHS will also assign a point person to coordinate this work statewide.
The expansion of contact tracing parallels the Mills Administration’s expansion of COVID-19 testing for the State of Maine. The Administration has partnered with Maine-based IDEXX Laboratories, Inc. to more than triple the State’s testing capacity, allowing anyone in Maine suspected of having COVID-19 to receive a test. The Mills Administration continues its efforts to secure more testing as part of its ongoing commitment to Maine’s public health and continues to press the Federal government to ensure that health care providers have a reliable and adequate supply of materials, such as personal protective equipment and swabs to collect samples from patients for testing.