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Applying the science of memory to contact tracing

Posted at 2:17 PM, Aug 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-07 14:23:25-04

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Applying the science of memory to contact tracing is the name of the game for a study currently underway in South Florida.

“To see if we can improve on what are current contact tracing interviews by applying psychology. to enhance memory,” said Dr. Jacqueline Evans, an associate professor of psychology at Florida International University.

She’s among a group of psychologists and researchers at FIU, who are trying to find a way to improve contact tracing.

“One major issue right now is that there are so many positive cases, which means there are so many phone calls that need to be made and the man power may be an issue going forward,” she said.

The goal is to utilize a self-led interview via a web link, so that it takes some of the workload off of contact tracers.

“Implement some of the techniques we know from psychology should help you to remember more people who you have interacted with,” she said.

It’s all about jogging the memory in different ways.

“We just sort of assume all they say is all they have stored in their memory, but that isn’t usually the case, especially if it’s a lot of information or a difficult task,” she said. “Just asking multiple times in multiple different ways can be useful.”

Dr. Paul Gilbert, a pediatrician in Boca Raton, is also a certified contact tracer through Johns Hopkins University. He said the process is extremely important in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“Help us guide who needs to be quarantined and who is in the clear based on exposure,” he said.

He noted that it’s not always easy.

“Whether it’s COVID shaming, or I don’t know whether it is fear or some misinformation out there, some individuals are kind of holding out on information about when they got sick, who they might have been around,” he said.

“There are two aspects to successful contact tracing,” said Dr. Evans. “You want people to be able to remember their contacts, but they also need to be willing to share them with you.”

Both professionals stressed the need to ensure confidentiality.

“I think one important thing is going to be building rapport with that person,” she said. “So don’t just dive right into getting into really personal details. You want to make sure they perceive you as somebody who is trustworthy, who isn’t going to judge them.”

A new method could be in the works right here in the sunshine state.

“We are hoping that we can get, not just people in South Florida, but around the country to adopt our methods,” she said.