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ISU Psychologist Develops Tool To Improve Contract Tracing

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courtesy Cog Tracer
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The cognitive interview questions for contact tracing are available at cogtracer.org.

Contact tracing is an important step in taming the spread of COVID-19, but by the time people test positive, it can be hard for them to remember who they’ve seen. Using cognitive interviewing techniques, which are more commonly deployed in law enforcement and intelligence situations, might help.

That’s according to new research from Christian Meissner, an Iowa State University psychology professor with an expertise in memory, and his colleagues at Florida International University.

“Every day is important when it comes to memory. We know that after a day or two we begin to lose access to memories,” Meissner says. “And the more quickly that you can encourage people to access memory and to engage in this recall of close contacts, the better the quality of the memory they produce and the larger number of contacts that they’re going to be able to produce as well.”

Meissner says guided questions and prompting with keywords can help a person re-create a scene from the past, which is how they are reminded of the people they’ve been near. And people could start answering those questions as soon as they realize they may have been exposed, rather than waiting until a contact tracer calls them after a positive test.

In a study conducted this summer, Meissner and his team found contact tracing interviews using these enhanced cognitive approaches helped people generate more robust lists of people they may have exposed.

“On average about four more close contacts were recalled in that cognitive protocol,” Meissner says. “And it didn’t matter if they had been taken through the interview by an interviewer or if they had taken the self-led version.”

The research led to a free, anonymous web-based interview that people can take on their own, even before they’ve received test results. Then they’re ready to notify close contacts if the test result comes back positive and by the time they hear from a contact tracer they may already have notified their personal contacts and could have a list ready of other people such as store clerks or people in a shared building who they don’t know personally. The contact tracer then reaches out to those people.

Meissner emphasizes the online interview is not a replacement for public health contact tracing, but could help jump-start the process.