Infectious Diseases Physician Dr Ayesha Verrall on Covid-19 contact tracing: "We have terrible data systems"

coronavirus 20/04/2020

Dr Ayesha Verrall, Infectious Diseases Physician from the University of Otago who recently audited the Ministry Of Health's contact tracing system, joined Ryan Bridge on Magic Drive to discuss her findings and elaborate on New Zealand's current contact tracing for Covid-19.

You can read her rapid audit of contact tracing for Covid-19 in New Zealand here, but here's an excerpt:

The capacity of the 12 Public Health Units (PHUs) in New Zealand is the primary factor limiting New Zealand’s ability to scale up its case management and contact tracing response to Covid-19. In March the workload of PHUs exceeded their capacity to conduct rapid contact tracing on occasion, even though case numbers were less than 100 per day. Expansion of the Public Health Unit workforce is an urgent need.

Initially, the timeliness of the process was poor. For, example between 2 and 8 April the average time from referral to instructing a contact to isolate was 2.3 days. However this likely reflected the staff training and software changes that were occurring at the time. At the time of my audit the main remaining quality concern was that only 60% of contacts could be easily reached by phone, either because of incorrect contact details or because people choose not to answer calls from an unidentified number.

Linkages between the National Health Index and other health datasets were being established to address the first problem. Planned improvements include changes to have outbound calls show a local number as the caller, rather than the current mix of four digit numbers. If the person attempts to return the missed call an explanatory text message will be sent, and by the end of April, missed outbound calls will soon be followed by a text message.

Dr. Verrall tells Ryan that she believes the government's contact tracing capacity wasn't high enough to meet what would be required if we had a surge of cases, but it seems to be improving. She also mentions that the system is disjointed, and difficult to track people through different public health units to manage cases.

Dr. Verrall also reveals it is hard to assess the quality of information, because there's no "dashboard" monitoring things across the board, and we need to call the contacts more often for better understanding.

Listen to the full conversation above.