Coronavirus Disease Contact Tracing Outcomes and Cost, Salt Lake County, Utah, USA, March–May 2020

Victoria L. Fields; Ian T. Kracalik; Christina Carthel; Adriana Lopez; Amy Schwartz; Nathaniel M. Lewis; Mackenzie Bray; Carlene Claflin; Kilee Jorgensen; Ha Khong, Walter Richards; Ilene Risk; Maureen Smithee; Madison Clawson; Lee Cherie Booth; Tara Scribellito; Jason Lowry; Jessica Huynh; Linda Davis; Holly Birch; Tiffany Tran; Joseph Walker; Alicia Fry; Aron Hall; Jodee Baker; Eric Pevzner; Angela C. Dunn; Jacqueline E. Tate; Hannah L. Kirking; Tair Kiphibane; Cuc H. Tran


Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2021;27(12):2999-3008. 

In This Article


We examined persons with laboratory-confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases and their close contacts retrospectively by using Salt Lake County Health Department (SLCoHD) surveillance data. We quantified the yield from each index case that generated a contact investigation and created transmission chains. We also examined 25 index cases and close contacts prospectively to estimate staff time and salary cost spent in contact tracing efforts.

SLCoHD Contact Tracing Procedures and Testing Guidelines

During March 12–May 3, 2020, SLCoHD staff traced all reported case-patients with laboratory-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection and their close contacts. Close contacts of any confirmed or probable case-patients were traced until no further symptomatic or positive contacts could be identified. Early in the study period, state guidelines called for prioritizing testing symptomatic close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 case-patients. Later in the study period, testing was available to anyone with approval from their healthcare provider.


We defined a confirmed COVID-19 case as detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA by real-time reverse transcription PCR.[13] According to the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists definition, a probable case is one that meets clinical criteria and epidemiologic evidence with no confirmatory laboratory testing performed for COVID-19, meets presumptive laboratory evidence and either clinical criteria or epidemiologic evidence, or meets vital records criteria with no confirmatory laboratory testing performed for COVID-19.[13] We defined a probable case as a symptomatic close contact to a confirmed case-patient. We defined close contacts as anyone ≤6 feet of a confirmed case-patient or a symptomatic contact to a confirmed case-patient (i.e., a probable case) for ≥15 minutes, ≥2 days before the case-patient's symptom onset and until the case-patient began strict isolation or until the contact's last exposure to the case.

Index Case Identification and Transmission Chains

SLCoHD staff conducted contact tracing investigations via telephone interview. Interviews included 5 components: providing isolation or quarantine guidance; monitoring contacts for 14 days after their last exposure to a case, with the option for daily phone calls or text messages; entering demographic data for contacts into the Utah National Electronic Disease Surveillance System (EpiTrax, for linkage and tracking; community notifications, including notifying businesses, workplaces, event venues, churches, or persons who might have been exposed to confirmed cases; and providing resources, such as information on housing or financial support, SARS-CoV-2 testing locations, and where and when to seek medical care.

We grouped contacts into 3 main categories: confirmed cases, probable cases, and contacts under observation. We further divided the 3 categories into 8 subclassifications: confirmed cases comprised index, symptomatic positive, and asymptomatic positive cases; probable cases comprised untested but symptomatic persons; and contacts under observation comprised persons who were asymptomatic not tested, symptomatic negative, or asymptomatic negative, as well as unknown status cases (Appendix, Status of probable cases and contacts under observation could change during the quarantine period; for instance, a probable case could become a symptomatic positive case if the contact had a SARS-CoV-2–positive test result during the quarantine period.

Data Source

We used EpiTrax surveillance data to retrospectively construct COVID-19 transmission chains for all confirmed index case-patients and contacts. We abstracted demographics, exposure history, SARS-CoV-2 test results, symptoms, and underlying conditions for confirmed or probable cases. We also abstracted investigation notes and applicable dates for last exposure to the confirmed or probable case, symptom onset, symptom resolution, initial health department contact, COVID-19 tests, monitoring period, hospital admission and discharge, and death. We also identified each contact's relationship to their respective index case-patient, such as household or nonhousehold contact and generation of contact (first through sixth generation).

We chose a priori to systematically select 10% of laboratory-confirmed cases diagnosed during March 12–May 3, 2020, in Salt Lake County. However, during that period, the number of cases identified in Salt Lake County grew. Our final sample represented 8% of the total 2,757 cases.

Effort Time and Cost

We selected 25 index case-patients and prospectively documented the time spent interviewing them and their 144 contacts, from time of initial health department interaction with the index case-patient to the end of each contact's 14-day monitoring period. Interviewers prospectively recorded time needed to complete all 5 investigation components for the selected index cas-patients. We grouped contacts into 1 of the 8 subclassifications and applied a β-PERT distribution to Monte Carlo simulation to estimate time and staff salary required to conduct contact tracing investigations for each of the 8 disease statuses (Appendix). We used the minimum, mean, and maximum time documented investigating each of the 8 disease subclassifications as parameters for the simulation (Appendix). We estimated salary cost by multiplying the median wage of all staff involved in contact tracing by the total number of hours spent on the contact tracing investigation (Appendix). Costs comprised time spent conducting all interviews (i.e., cost per index case and cost per contact, including those that were ultimately unreachable or out of jurisdiction) and for community notifications. We excluded nonstandardized costs, such as overhead, overtime, and time and costs for trainings.

Data Management and Analysis

To quantify contact tracing efforts, we evaluated the number of contacts yielded and investigated from each index case. We did not reclassify symptomatic contacts to an index case-patient if their symptom onset date was earlier than their respective index case-patient, but we did include them in the analysis. We used R (R Foundation for Statistical Computing, and Stata (StataCorp LLC, software for data management and descriptive analysis. We calculated 95% CIs for estimated time intervals between events, such as symptom onset, testing, and initial contact, and for estimated cost per type of case or contact investigation. This activity was reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was conducted consistent with its policy and applicable federal laws.[14–19]