New software slows Iowa COVID-19 contact tracing

New contact tracing software Iowa implemented Nov. 5 — at the height of a statewide surge of COVID-19 cases — continues to cause problems, including crashes, lag time entering records and security issues that don’t let local health departments use volunteers.

“It has slowed down our follow-up significantly,” said Lynelle Diers, Wapello County Public health director. “We are finding out about people when their isolation is about over, which, to me, is very ineffective. I know the other system was not built for a pandemic, but why do you do this during a surge?”

The Iowa Department of Public Health contracted with DOMO, a Utah-based company, to create the software as a replacement for the contact tracing components of the Iowa Disease Surveillance System. If DOMO sounds familiar, that’s because it’s one of the partners involved in a $26 million no-bid contract to develop the Test Iowa Initiative.

People who have used the software say it has potential as a useful tool, but it was developed without consulting with actual contact tracers.

There are unnecessary questions — such as “have you had exposure to a dog with COVID-19?” — that take up time in the urgent process of tracking down people who might have been exposed to coronavirus.

The DOMO system doesn’t let contact tracers update submitted records and the tracer who opened the record is the only one who can edit it, Diers said.

But the biggest problem is how long it takes for contact tracers to enter information into the system. Not only can it take 10 to 30 seconds to enter each new data point, but tracers have to toggle between modules for different parts of the contact interview.

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Sam Jarvis, community health division manager for the Johnson County Department of Public Health, said his staff has decided not to enter new information from interviews into the DOMO system for now because it’s too time consuming.

“We’ve made a local decision that response is more important and data entry has been put on the back burner,” Jarvis said. “We’re prioritizing our time to make contact with folks. You’ve got to get to them in a timely manner. We’re compartmentalizing things so we can continue on with local response.”

State Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, is concerned the software’s design and performance is leading to state leaders having incomplete information for making decisions about COVID-19.

“That’s not good,” she said. “We’ve been told all along that this is what she (Gov. Kim Reynolds) does. She looks at contact tracing, looks at PPE (personal protective equipment) needs, talks with hospitals in order to make decisions.”

State Public Health spokeswoman Sarah Ekstrand on Wednesday acknowledged the software was slow earlier in the month because of the increase in COVID-19 cases statewide.

She said DOMO and Public Health are working with counties to add “enhancements” and thinks the software will be an improvement.

Amy Thoreson, Scott County Public Health deputy director, said the new system allows managers to make reports by county or ZIP code and allows off-site contact tracers to easily pull names for tracing.

“There’s always a learning curve and unexpected bumps and challenges when you get a new system,” she said. “From a management aspect of it, it’s been quite helpful.”

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Ekstrand was not able to answer questions this week about how much the DOMO program costs or provide the contract for the software.

Mathis raised concerns about DOMO with State Auditor Rob Sand during a virtual town hall meeting Tuesday. She asked Sand whether the contact tracing software was included in the original Test Iowa contract.

“There’s nothing in the original contract for contact tracing,” Sand said.

Reynolds paid for the $26 million Test Iowa contract with part of the $1.25 billion in federal funds Iowa got through the CARES Act, passed by Congress in March.

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