State efforts to track the spread of COVID-19 may get a boost as Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday, July 30, that information collected as part of contact tracing would be kept private through an exemption to public record laws.
Inslee announced during a press conference that he would be signing a proclamation that would exempt personally-identifiable information collected as part of disease tracking from the state’s Public Records Act. The governor said that names, birth dates and phone numbers would be covered under the exemption.
Inslee mentioned that public employees and volunteers conducting the contact tracing already had similar protections, adding that “it seems natural this information would already be protected.”
“This proclamation makes it very, very clear so there’s no doubt about it,” Inslee said.
He stressed that individuals contacted through the procedure should cooperate to ensure its effectiveness.
“This can be one of the most effective tools to prevent other people from getting this disease,” Inslee said. “For it to succeed we need people to answer the phone.”
Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said that in any given week the state’s rate of contacting an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 within 24 hours of receiving the results goes from 30 to 100 percent, much of which was dependent on if people choose to respond.
“We need the cooperation of the public,” Wiesman said, adding that he hoped Inslee’s proclamation would work toward that end. “It’s important that you participate if Public Health calls, and you can be assured that your information isn’t going to be released.”
The proclamation was one of a variety of COVID-19 response-related topics covered in the press conference as the state has made adjustments in recent weeks to slow the spread of the disease. Earlier in the week, Inslee had put an indefinite pause on counties moving through Safe Start Washington phases.
Though he mentioned there were some positive signs in data collected by the state, there wasn’t enough of a trend to warrant more reopenings of shuttered businesses and events, Inslee said.
“It’s just too early to allow significantly more activities to open up right now, the data is clear on that,” Inslee said.
One of the positive signs was an apparent increase in percentages of individuals wearing facial coverings, something initially mandated in late June. Inslee said surveys in Central Washington show 90 to 95 percent of individuals entering businesses are wearing masks.
“It is tremendous because we have shown that we can really up our game quite quickly,” Inslee said about the rise in mask compliance.
Though more people were wearing masks in businesses, Inslee said survey data showed that compliance was less for social gatherings. He said that mask usage in social settings was just as important as in a business setting, if not more so, and overall refraining from gatherings was safest, even as the dog days of summer are in full swing in Washington.
“It is consistent with the sunshine, but it is dangerous,” Inslee said about gatherings.
What Inslee felt was not contributing to increased spread of the disease were individuals attending protest demonstrations across the state, pointing to data out of King County which showed “extremely low” positivity rates among individuals who attended such events who sought testing afterward.
“That may be because from my observations most folks are wearing masks while they’re (demonstrating),” Inslee said.
Wiesman said that as individuals contacted through tracing efforts are asked where they have recently been, whether or not they attended a demonstration can incidentally come up in the conversation, but specifically asking about that participation isn’t a part of the usual questions.
Inslee was scheduled to throw the first pitch at the Seattle Mariners’ home opener Friday, which with a confirmed outbreak of COVID-19 among the Miami Marlins organization, brought questions about how safe restarting major sports was, even without any in-person attendance by fans.
The governor said he believed teams had been “as rigorous as humanly possible” on precautions, adding that they would be obligated to drop out of participation if an outbreak is determined.
“If the virus gets into these teams, that’s going to change their plans. There’s no question about that,” Inslee said.