Public health investigators are no longer notifying people who may have had contact with a person confirmed to have COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
Faced with a rapidly growing number of cases, contact investigators with King, Pierce and Snohomish counties’ health districts have tightened their focus and are only notifying people who are known to have had contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and focusing more on slowing down the spread of the disease.
“This shift allows us to focus on broad prevention strategies to reduce transmission and on managing the health care system to ensure that people who become ill, and especially those who are at high risk, such as older and medically compromised populations, can receive care,” said a statement provided by a Public Health – Seattle & King County spokesperson.
Contact investigations in the three counties will still continue, and people who are considered close contacts will still be notified by the agencies. The next ring of people who might have had contact will be given guidance.
Public Health – Seattle & King County, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and Snohomish Health District all recently made the change because of the mounting pressure on the public health agencies to deal with the pandemic, which was first evident in the United States in January when a Snohomish County man became the nation’s first confirmed case.
King County has had 793 confirmed cases and 67 deaths from COVID-19. Snohomish County has had 385 confirmed cases and eight deaths, and Pierce County has had 83 cases and one death.
Cases of COVID-19 are expected to double every five to seven days, making the normal contact investigations no longer manageable, the Public Health statement said.
“COVID-19 is now circulating widely in the community — so traditional case contact tracing is less important than in the past. Our approach is assessed every day based on the best science and information about COVID-19 in our community,” the statement read.
In Pierce County, people considered high-risk, like health care workers, public safety professionals and anyone living in a care facility, will be prioritized, said Edie Jeffers, a spokesperson with Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
“We will continue full investigations and notifying close contacts,” Jeffers said. “For all other cases, we will notify the individual of his or her test results, provide guidance, and ask the person to notify his or her close contact of exposure.”
The Snohomish County Health District did not respond to emailed questions or return a phone call. The district’s interim health officer, Dr. Chris Spitters, told The Herald of Everett that the county doesn’t have the resources to operate as usual.
“As you can imagine, we have a supply-and-demand problem in terms of the scope of this event and the resources we can bring to bear on it,” Spitters said.
Contact investigations normally try and track down anyone who did or may have had contact with a person confirmed to have a highly infectious disease. The idea of contact investigations is to get ahead of transmission in the community and slow down the virus’ spread.
In King County, public health investigators will still gather basic information from each positive case, such as the date symptoms began, type of illness, and if the person was hospitalized. Investigators will also ask if the person worked or lived with vulnerable people.