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  • Article
  • 07.28.20

Oklahoma State University Launches Innovative Contact Tracing Program

  • by Georgia Mariani, Principal Product Marketing Manager, SAS Institute Inc.

As universities across the U.S. wrestle with reopening plans, the time-tested public health measure of contact tracing will be essential to those efforts. Universities will need to quickly identify who a COVID-positive person has been in contact with, where, and for how long. Fortunately, Oklahoma State University has a data-savvy institutional research department that’s bringing a 21st century approach to a classic challenge.

Oklahoma State University (OSU) Office of Institutional Research and Analytics (IRA) has transformed information delivery through the use of data and analytics and streamlined reporting to drive data-informed decision making across campus.

OSU is building on their current use of data visualization and analytics to create new contact tracing capabilities that help them reopen campus in the fall, stem the spread of the disease on campus, and prepare them for future health threats.

According to Christie Hawkins, Associate Vice President for Administration and Finance and Director of IRA, “When considering the challenges or reopening, we took an innovative mindset and considered the analytic tools we have at our disposal and the type and the amount of data our IR offices maintain. And the area that we thought we could help the most and that would provide the biggest benefit was contact tracing.”

Connecting the data to support contact tracing

To be ready for the return of students, faculty, and staff to a safe and healthy environment, OSU integrated different data sources to build a robust contact tracing system. After ensuring access would not violate university privacy guidelines, OSU securely used institutional data and time and location-based information such as data from 5,100 Wi-Fi access points, building and service access control data, event attendance data, class attendance data, and class schedules to help create inferred links between people, places and times.

“We looked at creating a contact database, finding ways that we could enrich the contact data, how we could do some alerting, and how we could use the data to gather public health insights that would help the university and the state,” said Larry Burns, Assistant Director of IRA.

OSU can supplement the work of public health officials and act faster by using more varied and relevant institutional data to stem the spread of disease.

How will it work?

The contact tracing process starts when the university is informed, by public health authorities, campus health services, private insurers or doctors that someone connected with OSU has tested positive for COVID-19. University health officials will be able to see a visual representation of data for that person and anyone who shared a location with them on campus for more than 15 minutes. The system will also include location data from fraternities and sororities.

With those contacts identified, the university can work with public health agencies to track the possible spread of the virus and communicate to those who might have been infected.

The OSU models will generate alerts if the data indicates quarantines or isolations are broken, or a super-spreader is suspected. The data will also be used to help identify areas for increased cleaning, social distance monitoring, and other education efforts.

An uncertain fall semester demands new approaches

Contact tracing will be critical to OSU’s reopening, and should be a part of any college’s strategy. University leaders should already be considering how to augment their data to better understand the movement and activities of students, faculty, and staff.

For many years, university communities have been susceptible to communicable diseases, such as measles, mumps, tuberculosis, and now COVID-19. Analytics helps institutions to act quickly in response to any type of health threat impacting their institutions. In the case of COVID-19, speed saves lives and protects the institution’s reputation.

By using the health data and analytical tools at their disposal, OSU’s IRA team is building resiliency for pandemics and crises to keep their students, faculty, and staff in a safe, healthy environment. For more information, check out this webinar Confidently Reopen Campus: Contact Tracing Strategies for Higher Education where OSU shares more details on their work.