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Washington Adds Covid Contact Tracers, Adjusts Protocols

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

On Wednesday, Washington state health officials announced they’re planning to hire 350 more Covid case investigators and contact tracers. The goal is to have them ready within a few weeks if the state experiences another surge of cases sometime this winter.

But there’s also a shift in strategy.

Up to now, contact tracers in Washington have called people who test positive for Covid and asked about those with whom they’d had recent close contact. Then they’d follow the leads, get as much information as they could and try to get everyone who was exposed to isolate themselves.

Contact tracers say it’s a time-consuming process that works when the case numbers are low. But in Spokane County, it’s been awhile since the case numbers were low.

“We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks now about shifting strategies more toward a quality improvement focus related to contact tracing and recognizing, at some point, we would tip the scale and not be able to get to all of those contacts in a timely fashion," said Susan Sjoberg, the epidemiology program manager for the Spokane Regional Health District.

This is a move to follow new recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “so that we can really focus in on high-risk settings and high-risk individuals for case investigation, where we can have the biggest impact on the public health intervention," Sjoberg said.

There’s also an admission that, with so many cases, contact tracers just can’t get to everyone they might like to.

“We are shifting in asking the cases to help in reaching out to their own contacts, to notify them of a potential exposure and to watch for signs and symptoms of illness, which is an important shift to understand and not just because our cases are really high.”

Sjoberg says the goal remains to contact everyone with a positive case within 24-to-48 hours. But she acknowledges the health district isn’t always meeting that goal.