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SRHD asks COVID positive patients to contact people who could have been exposed

The Spokane Regional Health District is not looking into hiring more contact tracers. Staff are encouraging cases to contact people they may have exposed.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Contact tracers in Spokane County are overwhelmed as COVID-19 cases increase significantly every day.  

There are currently 20 contact tracers working for the Spokane Regional Health District and the district is contracting with additional 35.

The biggest challenge contact tracers are facing right now is the volume of cases, according to Susan Sjoberg. She is SRHD's program manager for communicable disease epidemiology and immunizations. 

"We assume that with every case there is probably between seven and 10 people that they've had contact with," Sjoberg said. "So when we're at 514 cases yesterday, that means we're at 5,000 contacts."

The health district is not actively looking to hire more contact tracers, Sjoberg said. The district is encouraging cases to contact people they may have exposed on their own.

"We could throw 100 more people at this effort and still not meet the need of contact tracing. That's why it's really important for individuals who are COVID-positive to do their part," she said. 

She said the health district is now shifting its contact tracing strategy. Contact tracers are focusing on following up with cases where exposure is in a high-risk setting.

"Congregate living is a really good example, which includes shelters, long-term care environments," Sjoberg said. "So that's really our shift in focus. And then for all of the other contacts, that contact tracing is still being encouraged to happen. But we really would like to support cases and reaching out to their own contacts."

SRHD notes that their investigators will still contact employers of people who test positive so those employers can conduct their own contact tracings. 

"There's a lot of contact tracing work happening," Sjoberg said. "It's just not happening to the extent that it really needs to be by our disease investigators. And that's why we really are turning toward the cases themselves to help in that endeavor. What we need is the partnership with all of the people who test positive to help notify others who may have been exposed."

Small gatherings are where most people are getting exposed to COVID-19, according to Sjoberg.

"Typically, there's a relaxed sense of not wearing masks when you're in those smaller gatherings because there's a perception that it's not as higher risk," Sjoberg said. "But that's exactly how this virus is spread."

The most frustrating part about contact tracing right now is that the increase in cases is preventable, she added. 

"We recognize we're all fatigued from the effects of this pandemic, whether it's because of our work, our isolation or not being able to gather for holidays with family and friends," Sjoberg said. "But this is probably the biggest risk we've yet experienced in Spokane County from COVID-19...and so our need to remain vigilant, with masking and physical distancing and really limiting being out and about as much as possible, is critical to us being able to get ahead of this."