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Minnesota replaces COVID-19 case investigation phone calls with texts, online surveys

People who ignore the text message will still receive a call from the state health department.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

ST PAUL, Minn — Contact tracing in Minnesota has become a massive task for the state health department as COVID-19 cases have risen exponentially since the pandemic began.

On Thursday, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) announced that it will now move one key part of the process online, to make it easier and more accessible.

Before contact tracing can be done, MDH has to do a case investigation for each person who tests positive for COVID-19. Previously, those people would receive a phone call from the health department.

Now, MDH says they will receive a text message asking them to participate in an online survey, so they can fill the answers out themselves. 

"The scale of this pandemic has made us look to new methods to do our work," MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a news release announcing the new tool on Thursday. "Tools like this survey will mean we can reach more people, more quickly, and ideally slow the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota."

A telling sign of the magnitude of the contact tracing job has been the daily MDH update, which includes a breakdown of the "likely exposure" for each case. The "Unknown/missing" category is by far the largest number, for awhile growing substantially each day when daily case counts were at their highest. As of Thursday, there were 155,579 cases with unknown or missing origins.

MDH said the text message will invite people to reply with their email address, and then they will receive a survey. The texts and surveys will be offered in multiple languages. The survey will ask the typical questions about symptoms and testing dates, and will also offer resources to help make isolation and quarantine "less of a burden," MDH said.

Anyone who ignores the text will still receive a phone call from an MDH case investigator.

The state health department reported that it launched a successful pilot run of this program in Hennepin County the week of Jan. 11. MDH Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said if anyone is worried about differentiating the official texts from potential scams, they can visit the "avoiding phone scams" webpage. She said MDH will never ask for banking information, financial information or a Social Security Number.

"The survey will make it easier for us to track COVID-19, and make it easier for people to help stop the spread," Ehresmann said in Thursday's news release.

Minnesota passed the grim milestone of 6,000 COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, and has reached a total of 450,762 cases since the onset of the pandemic.