Otago University’s contact tracing system shows promising results in test scenario

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Professor Philip Hill.

An initial test of the University of Otago’s contact tracing system for COVID-19 has produced promising results after most contacts identified in the emergency exercise scenario of a visiting international professor to the Dunedin campus were able to be tracked down.

Chair of the University’s infectious disease emergency planning group, Professor Philip Hill, explains that being a multi-campus university with 20,000 students and about 4000 staff, it is imperative to have an effective and efficient contact tracing system.

The University of Otago has established a contact tracing system centralised on tracking individuals using its high capability wireless network, augmented by other data available through its information technology systems.

“We decided to carry out this test because it is one thing to set up an information system, but another for it to be proven to be fit for purpose, which is to provide the right information over the right time frame,” Professor Hill explains.

“With COVID-19 your systems have to perform at the right level of quality under time pressure to be useful. We wanted to see if our system is as good as we think it is and we also wanted to let others around the country benefit from seeing what we are doing and decide if their systems might benefit from such an evaluation.”

Staff involved in running the contact tracing system were not given details of the scenario beforehand. The emergency exercise scenario of a visiting professor on the Dunedin campus for one day was put to them after the professor reportedly developed COVID-19 symptoms the day following her visit and received a positive test the next day.

The University’s contact tracing team tracked the professor’s actions on campus which included a lecture to students, lunch in the staff club, a tour of a PC3 research laboratory and meeting with the Vice-Chancellor in the Clocktower.

Overall, the contact tracing system identified more than 400 contacts of the imaginary visitor within less than six hours. In total 86 per cent of contacts were able to be contacted by telephone within 24 hours.

Professor Hill says the test identified learnings for the next test of the system and there were limitations, the main one being that at COVID Level One there is no requirement for people on campus to have wireless devices connected as part of contact tracing.

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