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Washington State Readies to Deploy COVID-19 Contact Tracers

Gov. Inslee says the state is nearly ready to deploy 1,371 contract tracers as part of the state’s first phase of reopening. Washington state is still sheltering in place through the end of May.

(TNS) — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday the state is ready to deploy “at a couple days’ notice” 1,371 trained contact tracers as part of a new phase in the battle against the pandemic.

Inslee believes that will be enough for current conditions, but the state can train more, and “I’m confident we will have the resources to get this done.”

People are being asked to quarantine with members of their household at the first sign of the virus and get tested, and the state will be increasing the tests it conducts. Those who test positive will be asked to isolate with all members of their household whether or not they also have tested positive.

Contact tracers will contact those who test positive within a day or two, and ask them about places they have been and people with whom they’ve been in contact in the days before the symptoms developed. Tracers will contact those people, mostly by phone, keeping the identity of the possible source of their exposure secret while urging them to get tested.

Contact tracers will also help arrange services like delivery of groceries to people in isolation so they can stay in their homes for 14 days, or find other housing arrangements for someone who tests positive, away from family members who aren’t yet infected.

Among the first group of contact tracers are 351 members of the Washington National Guard, in a special assignment headed by Lt. Col. Steve Hobbs, also a Democratic state senator from Lake Stevens.

“Privacy is of the utmost importance,” Hobbs said, and people contacted can voluntarily end the call at any time. “This is a unique mission for us.”

Inslee said guardsmen serving as contact tracers will not have any law-enforcement powers. Asked what would happen to people who refuse to get tested or go into isolation, he said the state was getting a high percentage of compliance with current requirements.

“It just shouldn’t come to that,” he said.

The governor’s Safe Start plan says that the COVID-19 disease burden must be low and decreasing in order to move to the next phase. And while hospitalizations and the percentage of positive cases found through testing statewide have lowered, overall case counts have plateaued for the last few weeks, which is not what health officials want.

“I’m still a little bit uncomfortable with our overall epidemiological curve, which appears to not be coming down real quickly, with still 200 to 250 cases being reported per day,” State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said Tuesday.

Some parts of the state are still seeing growth in the number of cases reported daily, particularly Yakima County. Other counties, like Spokane, reported no new cases on Tuesday.

The high number of cases reported on a daily basis statewide could be due in part to an increase in the number of Washington residents who are being tested. Currently, about 6,000 residents are tested daily, compared to about 4,000 per day in late March and April.

The testing criteria have expanded, and people with any symptoms of COVID-19 beyond coughing or flu-like symptoms, such as loss of taste, aches and pains or a sore throat, are encouraged to get tested.

The state is still not where it wants to be for testing capacity, due to a lack of materials, but federal shipments of swabs and viral transport material should arrive this week. State health officials are still finalizing the testing strategy for the next phases, leaders said Tuesday.

Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order is set to last through May 31. Beyond Phase 1 businesses, no gatherings should be happening outside of immediate households and travel should be for essential purposes only. Only eight counties have clearance so far to move to Phase 2, once each industry receives guidelines from the governor’s office to reopen.

Lofy said at the end of May, state health officials will look at the data, testing and contact tracing to see how the state is doing, and if it makes sense, move to Phase 2.

“People need to keep in mind that life will be very different for potentially the next six to 12 months unless we can get a vaccine or a treatment any time sooner,” Lofy said on Tuesday. “… People need to keep in mind that we’re in this for the long run.”

©2020 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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