Kimberly Steele-Peter, a supervisor for a team of contact tracers at the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department making a tracing call in her office on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

Quickly calling newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients to identify other people they have been around is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19, according to public health officials.

In Yakima County, where new cases and hospitalizations are high, the state Department of Health is leading this contact tracing effort.

But what does that look like in practice?

It starts with a test for the respiratory infection, said Yakima Health District spokeswoman Lilian Bravo. Each patient who is tested is told to quarantine at least until they get their results back, and to watch their symptoms in case they need follow-up medical treatment. Then, the test is sent to an approved lab.

When the result is ready, the lab sends it to both the medical provider who ordered the test and to DOH, which begins making calls if there is a confirmed case, Bravo said.

The first call is to the patient.

Contact tracers — people making the call on behalf of DOH, in Yakima County’s case — inform patients that they have a case of COVID-19. They discuss the importance of quarantine and monitoring symptoms. Then, they ask questions about their symptoms, where they have been outside of the house recently and where they work.

Bravo said tracers note if an individual works in a setting where there might be a high risk of exposure to others, such as in health care or child care, so that swift interventions can be taken to prevent an outbreak.

Tracers also ask patients who they have been in close contact with. That means someone who has been within 6 feet of the person for at least 15 minutes within the previous 14 days. They call those individuals next to warn them of their exposure, tell them to isolate for 14 days and to monitor for symptoms of the virus.

Time matters

COVID-19 can spread before symptoms occur or when no symptoms are present. As a result, investigation and contact tracing activities must be swift and thorough, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.

State tracers aim to contact at least 90% of confirmed patients within 24 hours of a positive result. They also try to make contact with at least 80% of close contacts within 48 hours.

As of Friday, the staff working for the state were exceeding both of those goals, said DOH communications director Amy Reynolds.

In Yakima County, more than 100 new cases have been confirmed each day in the past week. The county has a rate of 700 new cases per 100,000 population in the two weeks prior, according to the Department of Health — well over the state-set goal of less than 25 new cases per 100,000.

While hundreds of state staff and National Guard members have been trained in the investigative work, many health districts statewide have taken on the effort independently.

As of Friday, 62 individuals were actively working with DOH doing case investigations on behalf of local health jurisdictions, including Yakima’s. On top of that, 35 National Guard members were doing daily wellness checks on individuals who were quarantined or isolating to ask about new symptoms, for example. All of those staff help support the efforts in Yakima County, Reynolds said.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Saturday mentioned that contact tracing is a key part of addressing the spread of COVID-19 in Yakima County, along with testing, mask wearing and efforts to help families in isolation.

The state is working to train dual-language staff in contact tracing, such as Spanish speakers, said Reynolds. But already, the staff working for the state have been trained to use interpretive services that allow them to do the work in multiple languages, she said.

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