‘Box in the Virus’: Inslee Announces Contact Tracing Efforts

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The next strategy for combating the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington state will involve targeted tracing of potential contact with confirmed cases of the disease, in some cases requiring isolation of whole households should one member come down with coronavirus, Gov. Jay Inslee said today.

During a press conference Inslee announced the state’s contact tracing initiative for COVID-19. He laid out a five-step process intended to “box in the virus,” beginning with self-quarantine of individuals as soon as COVID-19 symptoms develop, followed by widespread testing, isolation of others in the household upon a positive test, identifying of potential contacts and subsequent quarantine of those contacts, beginning the cycle again.

Following a positive test Inslee said those individuals would be reached by phone to determine potential contacts, with the tracing worker following up on those contacts to let them know of possible exposure. The governor said the state hoped to be able to reach out to those testing positive within 24 hours of the results, with potential close contacts receiving notification in 48.

Inslee said that information collected would be used exclusively for public health purposes, adding that potential close contacts would not be told the name of the individual who tested positive. He said those conducting the contact interviews would ask some demographic questions, such as age, address, gender and ethnicity, but not Social Security numbers and financial information or immigration and marital status.

Inslee said the statewide effort would be an extension of similar, local contact tracing procedures done in Washington to other communicable diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis in the past, but “on a much grander scale” than those efforts. He characterized the focus on contact tracing as a transition in COVID-19 response strategies, following the initial social distancing restrictions and occuring at the same time the phased “Safe Start Washington” process is moving along.

To meet the end of effective contact tracing the governor said there would be close to 1,400 individuals working on tracing by the end of the week, including 351 from the Washington Army National Guard, 390 from the state Department of Licensing and 630 state and local health department professionals.

Inslee said the contact tracers were “fully trained” with respect to rights of privacy, going through a screening process and signing confidentiality agreements.

Speaking on the National Guard’s involvement with the strategy, Lt. Col. Steve Hobbs said that “privacy is the utmost importance” with information collected being entered into a secure state Department of Health database.

Hobbs stressed the contact tracing would be voluntary, adding that “the individual can end the phone call at any time.” He added that contact tracers would help to find resources for individuals contacted should they be in need of assistance while taking part in efforts to stop the spread of the disease.

Inslee said the new strategy might be more difficult in some respects to more across-the-board responses like social distancing, requiring commitments from state and local health officials as well as Washington families. As a way to help households following guidelines of 14 days of isolation following a positive test of one member, he said those that are isolating would have regular contact with “family support personnel,” who would help assist those who needed resources outside of the home, such as medical or grocery shopping.

“We want to be as reassuring to these families as possible,” Inslee remarked.

Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said that on top of past symptoms identified such as cough, a fever and difficulty breathing, state health officials have added chills, muscle pain, headaches, sore throat or a recent loss of taste or smell to the list. Although the state was taking up a new approach he said it was still important to keep physical distancing.

“This effort around contact tracing is incredibly important to our success in moving forward,” Wiesman remarked, saying that success would be incumbent on Washingtonians taking responsibility should they have symptoms to follow isolation guidelines.

Wiesman said the federal government had indicated they would supply the state with 580,000 swabs and transport media needed for testing in May and again in June. Inslee said there would be a greater need for testing capability as segments of the state economy reopens, allowing for swift response should a large business have an infection.

Related to the contract tracing effort, Inslee’s office recently released criteria needed for restaurants to resume in-person dining, including keeping their own log of customers in order to aid in any necessary tracing. The governor said that discussions with restaurant owners were ongoing, explaining the need to come up with a solution that both allows those businesses to open their doors while also maintaining a tool to use should potential contact tracing be needed.

“No one’s looking to make this a federal crime. We’re trying to save some lives here,” Inslee remarked about compliance. He mentioned work on protocols to make sure “that restaurants could not use this data for anything, period, except sharing information if there’s a contract tracing review,” adding that criteria would be “legally enforceable.”

Inslee acknowledged that redoubling efforts to stop the COVID-19 outbreak through contact tracing was a late game push given the months of prior response, but stressed the need to stay the course and resist any feelings of fatigue to prevent a resurgence of the disease when Washington returns to normalcy.

“This is a moment of high challenge that really calls for us to be more dedicated than we have ever been to this (response),” Inslee remarked.

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