Contact tracing is a key part of the strategy for corralling coronavirus. (University of Washington Photo)
The Washington State Department of Health is in the early stages of a massive effort to interview COVID-19 patients and track down those who might have been infected by those patients.
Contact tracing is a tried and true technique, typically used to stem the spread of infectious diseases ranging from tuberculosis to measles to gonorrhea. Now it’s part of the strategy for getting the coronavirus pandemic under control.
“Contact tracing is going to be an essential part of our reopening and containment efforts moving forward,” said Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. “We need to trace every contact possible, because every contact counts in stopping this disease.”
But contact tracing is a time-intensive process that involves interviewing each person who has tested positive for COVID-19, determining who’s recently been in close contact with that person, contacting those people, getting them tested — and then starting over with those who test positive.
Previously: How testing and contact tracing work together to quell COVID-19
The state’s tally of confirmed cases passed the 19,000 mark this week, and roughly 150 new cases are being reported every day. The goal is to get in touch with each COVID-19 patient within 24 hours of a positive test, and track down all of that patient’s contacts within 48 hours.
Before the pandemic, about 630 local and state public health professionals were available in Washington state to do such work. Now more than 700 National Guard personnel and more than 750 employees from the state Department of Licensing have been trained to help local health agencies with the task as needed.
To add to the challenge, the National Guard deployment is currently scheduled to end in a little more than a month. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has asked to have that deployment extended through July, but to supplement the current contact-tracing corps, state officials are also reviewing applications from thousands of Community Health volunteers.
Across the nation, public health agencies may need to add tens of thousands of contact tracers to their ranks — and that means they’ll need to be trained.
UW’s Northwest Center for Public Health Practice has set up an online course called “Every Contact Counts,” designed to teach the basics of contact tracing to public health professionals and volunteers.
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