Skepticism Abounds Around Contact Tracing And Mask Orders

May 13, 2020

Some Inland Northwest residents are skeptical about the process of contact tracing and the effectiveness of wearing masks in public.
Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR


Spokane public health officials are not only battling the coronavirus. They’re also battling skepticism from people questioning the effectiveness of their advice and their motives.

When the Spokane Regional Health District moves to enhance its program for tracing people who test positive for Covid-19, its motives will be questioned.

Do you really need the information you’re asking for? A few members of the public who posted messages on a Facebook live chat sponsored by Spokane Covid Response on Wednesday were defiant about what they would tell a contact tracer. I won’t give my real name, one said. Some worried their personal information would wind up in the wrong hands.

“Generally we can get around people’s skepticism and certainly the skepticism is warranted. There are a lot of scams out there," said health district epidemiologist Anna Halloran.

Halloran says when contact tracers call people who have tested positive for the virus, some are initially hesitant to talk. So the tracers give them an option.

“We ask them to call the main line of the health department and ask to be connected back to us. That usually helps with providing some legitimacy to the work that we’re doing," she said. "We can also send a letter on our letterhead. Those are the primary tools that we use to try to convince somebody that we’re legitimately trying to reach them for this serious matter.”

But others won’t be satisfied by that. And their skepticism makes the job of contact tracers a lot harder, says Health Officer Bob Lutz.

“There is a lot of social media going on right now about how this is getting detailed information that’s going to be shared broadly. That’s anything but the case. The same way that we in clinical practice really emphasize the confidentiality of medical information, no different. No different," Lutz said. "We really have to stamp out the conspiracy theories that are circulating around the confidentiality of contact tracing.”

Similarly, there’s skepticism around the possibility that masks may be mandated whenever someone goes outside. King County officials this week strongly urged people to wear them. But people question that too. Why were masks not good enough for federal health officials weeks ago, when they urged people not to wear them?

“Certainly our understanding of the disease has progressed. Our understanding of the role of masks has also progressed. I think, going forward, as you’ve seen in Seattle most recently, we’ve seen in recently in other communities, in California, there are stronger requirements and recommendations to wear masks. I think that will be something that you will be seeing forthcoming, hopefully in Spokane," he said.

Lutz says a mask order in Spokane would operate on the honor system, with the possibility of enforcement. He mentioned the case of a South Korean man with the virus who visited three nightclubs one recent evening and is suspected of infecting at least 100 people.

But for now, Lutz is appealing to people to do the right thing and mask up when they go out.