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Contact tracing described as 'essential' to reopening Washington

A researcher involved in contact tracing
A researcher involved in contact tracing
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Health officials and local lawmakers agree that establishing widespread contact tracing will be critical in helping determine when and how the state's stay-home order is lifted.

“It’s going to be an essential part of our reopening and containment efforts moving forward,” said Janet Baseman, epidemiologist at the University of Washington.

“As we get to zero (cases) and we start to reopen things, having contact tracing available will be critical,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Monday.

Contact tracing is a tool used by health officials to track where the virus has spread and to whom.

Traditionally, health officers will call those who’ve tested positive and obtain a list of people who have been in close contact with that person.

The goal is to isolate those who could have contracted the virus.

Given the scope of this pandemic, Baseman said this response may require advanced technology to help with efficiency.

“My best guess is that it’s going to look like a combination of our traditional contact tracing processes and some new elements," she said. "What those new elements are remains to be seen.”

On Friday, Google and Apple announced they’re working on a Bluetooth-based app to track and trace the virus.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted on Friday, “To help public health officials slow the spread of COVID19, Google & Apple are working on a contact tracing approach designed with strong controls and protections for user privacy. [Apple CEO] Tim Cook and I are committed to working together on these efforts.”

Eastern Asian countries used similar phone and Internet-based tracing tools to track the virus after the mitigation phase of the response.

“In Korea, they used cell phones and online tracking,” Durkan said.

“We can do that here, but we’re going to have to be very careful about privacy concerns," she said. "But we clearly have to know if someone has the virus, who have they exposed, and be able get those people tested and quarantined as appropriate, because otherwise we will then just see the exponential growth again.”

Baseman said there may be a short-term privacy compromises that have to be made to protect the public’s health.

“Personally, I feel that as long as those [compromises] are well-communicated, that there are a lot of stakeholders involved in the discussions, that people are being heard and understand how the data is being used, how long the data is kept before destroyed, what the purposes are and when they’re shutting it down, I feel people will be receptive to it," she said." "But it’s really dependent on how good a job we do communicating on what’s going on and all of those different aspects that I think people will be concerned about.”

Dr. John Wiesman, Secretary of Health, said today they currently have ramped up contact tracing across the state and are exploring their options to partner with tech corporations.

Wiesman said tracing will be organized by local jurisdictions, but state health officials have supported King, Snohomish, Lewis, and Spokane counties.

Wiesman said the goal is to identify those who’ve tested positive of COVID-19 and start calling those potentially exposed within 24 hours.

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“It’s through those contact tracing efforts that we can get people aware that they need to be monitoring their symptoms,” Baseman said. “They may need to be isolated.”

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