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Cloud CRM enlisted in COVID contact tracing

As communities start down the road to reopening after pandemic-related shutdowns, public health officials are urging caution about the coronavirus’s continued spread and turning to digitized contact tracing to help track the threat.

Although deploying trained case workers to trace contacts of those exposed to a communicable disease isn’t new -- it’s been used to track smallpox, HIV and SARS, for example -- using technology for the job is. A recent report from Johns Hopkins University provides tips for public health agencies using digital contact-tracing tools, such as ensuring that technology design is flexible enough to change along with conditions, data is available to health professionals in a de-identified form and the solution has base features to protect privacy plus optional ones, such as location.

“These technologies have significant promise,” according to the report. “They also raise important ethical, legal, and governance challenges that require comprehensive analysis in order to support decision-making.”

Although privacy concerns have limited the use of digital contact tracing in the United States, companies are providing contact tracing tools for public health agencies that put privacy protections at their heart.

Some states are using the Salesforce customer relationship management platform to handle contact tracing. The company’s Work.com suite of tools released in May creates maps of contacts and locations to monitor potential interactions and outbreak. It helps public health agencies manually, securely and privately trace health and relationship contacts of those exposed to an infectious disease.

Rhode Island was the first to work with the company on developing tools that would enable officials there to more easily follow up with people who test positive for COVID-19. 

The suite has three main components for three categories of users. First is the public. Someone experiencing symptoms can go to the public health agency’s website and engage with a chatbot, which can understand, based on the person’s responses, whether they might have COVID-19. The bot can then help the person reach virtual assistance or set up an appointment to get tested.

What’s more, the person can fill out a form to share their contact information and the names and contact information of anyone with whom they were in close proximity before feeling sick. That information shows up in the agency’s database and alerts public health workers to let contact tracers know to reach out to those people to see how they’re feeling or if they’re quarantined.

Public health officials can also use the data on the number of people reporting positive diagnoses to home in on hotspots in specific counties, for instance.

The third user group is case workers who help arrange for food and medication to be delivered to someone in isolation or quarantine. They can get alerts to new entries, and the system can create tasks automatically so that if one caseworker’s workload gets too heavy, it can be spread among several public health officials to follow up.

New York City also is working with Salesforce to set up a call center and customer relationship and case management system for tracking people who could have been infected. The city’s Test and Trace Corps deployed the system at the beginning of June and has been monitoring thousands of cases.

More than 30 states are using Salesforce for COVID-related solutions generally, not just Work.com, company officials said.

To use Work.com, agencies need to be on the Salesforce platform. The low-code/no-code platform allows users to design and configure the interfaces, the fields and the forms to capture specific data. “All of that’s changeable and configurable,” said Kishan Chetan, Salesforce's senior vice president of industry products. “Every state has its own nuances” and integration requirements, he said. “We have a very well-defined way of essentially integrating data through our integration cloud as well as other services.”

The suite does not use any artificial intelligence, a deliberate decision to help protect personally identifiable information. Patient data is not used in any AI models, Chetan said. “This is very protected health information, which we absolutely don’t want to run AI models on.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touts contact tracing for monitoring the spread of COVID-19 and has issued guidelines stating that technology is a necessity for efficient work in this area: “Case investigation, contact tracing, and contact follow-up and monitoring will need to be linked with timely testing, clinical services, and agile data management systems to facilitate real-time electronic transmission of laboratory and case data for public health action.”

Other companies working on digital contact tracing efforts that address the public’s privacy concerns include Apple and Google.

The technology is unlikely to be a one-off, Chetan added, making the investment by government agencies worthwhile not just now, but in the future.

“The world we live in, there are emergencies that happen … like a hurricane or a flood” or contagious diseases, he said. While we may not see another emergency like COVID-19, he said, “this is a call to all of the state and local businesses to be prepared for an emergency like this.”

Editor's note: This article was changed June 18 to include the number of states using Salesforce for COVID-related applications.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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