Washington has nearly 1,400 trained contact-tracing personnel who are beginning to contact each new person who tests positive for the novel coronavirus, in an effort to track down other people they may have infected, Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday.
The newly trained brigade of contact tracers are part of what Inslee called a three-pronged approach to locking down the virus: broad-based testing, isolation and contact tracing.
When a person tests positive, they will receive a phone call from a contact tracer, Inslee said. The tracer will ask where the person has gone and who they’ve been in contact with. They’ll then call those people — ideally within 48 hours — telling them they’ve been in contact with someone who tested positive, and asking them to self-quarantine until they can be tested themselves and test negative.
“It is supremely important to our ability to reopen our economy and our businesses while simultaneously protecting our health,” Inslee said of contact tracing, calling it “absolutely integral to our success.”
Inslee said the state will have 1,371 trained contact tracers — 630 local and state health officials, 390 from the state Department of Licensing and 351 from the National Guard. Inslee said he was confident that was enough tracers to handle each new case currently being reported. Washington has generally been seeing 200 to 300 new cases reported each day for the last several weeks.
This, Inslee said, is the same work local health departments have done for decades, to try to tamp down outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis, but “on a much grander scale.” And the state will depend on local health departments to request contact tracers when there are positive tests in their counties.
Local health departments generally gave up contact tracing coronavirus cases months ago, after the disease became too widespread and their resources were stretched too thin. King County stopped contact tracing March 5.
“Case and contact investigation is truly the heart of public health,” said Tristen Lamb, administrator of Kittitas County Public Health. “It’s learning how the disease got here and where it’s going to go.”
Inslee urged people to isolate at the first sign of symptoms and said people who do test positive should stay isolated for 14 days, as should their families, because the virus has been so quick to spread within households. He said that someone will check in daily on people who have tested positive and are quarantining, either by phone or by text.
“We have to depend upon the sense of commitment and compassion that Washingtonians have to make this work,” Inslee said.
Conspiracy theories, related to contact tracing, have abounded. One video circulating online features Inslee speaking over ominous music as terms like “forced isolation,” “government isolation facilities” and “National Guard” flash on the screen. It’s garnered more than 265,000 views on YouTube in less than three days.
Inslee worked to assuage privacy concerns on Tuesday.
“The information collected is only used by public health,” Inslee said. “It will not be shared.”
He said contact tracers have been carefully screened and have signed confidentiality agreements. They will never ask about immigration status, Social Security numbers or marital status. When contacts are reached by tracers, they will not be told who may have exposed them to the virus or who tested positive.
“An individual can end the phone call at any time,” said Lt. Col. Steve Hobbs of the Washington Army National Guard. Hobbs, who is also a Democratic state senator, said people tracers have already contacted have had an “overwhelming response, positive response.”
On Monday, Inslee’s office issued new guidance for restaurants, once they’re allowed to reopen for in-person dining, a process currently beginning in eight counties. That guidance included requiring restaurants to keep a log of daily customers, and their contact information, to make it easier for contact tracers in the event of a new infection.
He said his administration has been in touch with the state restaurant association, to try to make the new guidance workable.
“If you have someone who becomes sick, and they were sitting right next to a person at a restaurant,” Inslee said, “to be able to identify that person could be very helpful.”