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Explosion in COVID cases complicates contact tracing efforts in Washington

New contact tracers are being hired and trained at the state and local level to try and keep up with COVID-19 case counts.

SEATTLE — The recent explosion in COVID-19 cases has made it nearly impossible for contact tracers to keep up, according to public health officials in Washington. 

“These outbreaks grow so quickly, they overwhelm many of our public health response capacities, both with contact tracing and to do investigations in a timely way,” said Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin, with Public Heath Seattle - King County.

And it’s not just King County, it’s happening in Snohomish County and statewide.

“We’re actually doing more case investigations and more notifications in terms of numbers of people reached than we have in recent weeks, but the percentage of total cases and contacts is lower because there’s just so much out there,” said Dr. Chris Spitters, Health Officer for the Snohomish Health District.

According to Duchin, new contract tracers are being hired and trained as quickly as possible to add to the workforce at state and local levels.

But with exponential growth in the numbers of people needing to be contacted, King County is considering changing course in who they contact.

“We will be looking at prioritizing our contact investigations towards people who are at high-risk, congregate settings and potentially less hands-on touches and person contact with what appear to be isolated or low risk scenarios,” Duchin said.

Another big issue: phone calls are going unanswered and some people, Duchin said, aren’t being fully transparent with contact tracers.

“It’s a challenge. I mean, we know already that people don’t tell us everything. They don’t want to tell us something that is going to get their friends in trouble, the person who hosted the party, they don’t want to mention that person’s name,” he said. “I don’t know what we can do to impact people’s willingness to be more forthcoming. Clearly, the more we understand where transmission is occurring, the more precision and clarity, the more we can get messages out.”

The Washington State Department of Health gave this statement to KING 5:

“Surging cases make timely case investigations and contact tracing more challenging. Ways everyone can help:

  • Don’t gather with people from outside your home.
  • Stay home as much as possible. That way, fewer people are exposed if you have COVID-19 and don’t know it because you don’t have symptoms.
  • If you must leave your house, wear a face mask to protect others.
  • If public health calls, answer the phone or return the call. We need everyone to participate in case investigations and contact tracing to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

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