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Utah County shifts to automated contact tracing for middle, high school students

LEHI, Utah – For the first time, Utah will use automated contact tracing for minors with COVID-19, as one local health department already announced it intends to use the system for middle and high school students who test positive for the virus.

“As of this morning, we were able to finally launch an automated contact tracing system that’s now able to be used by minors,” said Jenny Johnson with the Utah Department of Health.

Johnson said, for about the last year, Utah has been using an automated contact tracing system, or ACTS, for adults. But before the system could be used for minors, the department needed to ensure the messages were only being sent to parents or guardians.

“We were finally able to figure out some of those legal issues, and now, it’s an option for our local health departments to use,” said Johnson.

Johnson said ACTS can help overwhelmed contact tracing workers and that the system is typically implemented during times of surging case counts.

“Right now, unfortunately, we’re experiencing another pretty big surge in COVID-19 cases throughout the state, and when that happens, it can very quickly overwhelm all of our contact tracing systems,” said Johnson.

Utah County’s health department said it will shift to ACTS for students from 7th to 12th grades because of the increased volume of cases in school-aged children.

“This is a temporary change until the COVID case load lightens,” the Utah County Health Department said in a press release.

In a letter sent to parents, the local health department said the automated system will offer faster and more convenient notifications through emails or text messages.

“ACTS will help us enhance our regular contact tracing efforts (i.e. school exposure letters, phone calls) for students in kindergarten through sixth grade as they are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination,” the letter said.

The text messages or emails will contain links to a questionnaire that will ask about the student’s symptoms and with whom they have been in contact.

“The information that we ask for truly can save lives,” Johnson said. “It helps us know where you were exposed — most likely — so that we can help other people who may have had those same exposures.”

The information parents provide will then be stored in a secure database.

“The information collected through ACTS is the same information a contact tracer would ask if they were to interview a parent about their student over the phone,” the Utah County health department’s statement went on to say.

This week, the Alpine School District, located in Utah County, forwarded on the health department’s ACTS notification letter to parents.

“This will simplify that process,” said David Stephenson, administrator of public relations for Alpine School District. “It will speed it up.”

Stephenson said the district — the state’s largest — welcomes the change to automated contact tracing for secondary students.

“They actually want to concentrate on those younger students in our elementary schools, where we are seeing more cases than we have in the past,” said Stephenson.

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