Expanded Testing and Contact Tracing Key to Safe Reopening of Businesses

Expanded Testing and Contact Tracing Key to Safe Reopening of Businesses

May 26, 2020

A key component to Governor Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Washington Recovery Plan to safely reopen businesses is to increase testing of anyone with coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms and notify close contacts of those who test positive for the disease. A close contact is defined as anyone who was around the positive person, while infectious, for a prolonged period of time (defined as being within 6 feet of someone with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes). These are typically household members, coworkers, classmates, or people who you may have interacted with socially. The process of identifying, testing, and treating close contacts is known as contact tracing. Testing and contact tracing are critical to “box in the virus” and prevent it from spreading to others in the community. 

Who Should Get A Test?

As more testing supplies have become available and additional COVID-19 symptoms have been identified, Washington State Department of Health is recommending expanded testing guidelines for any patient who has COVID-19-like symptoms, regardless of age or health status. If you are experiencing the following symptoms, contact your health provider to be evaluated for a test:  

  •     Cough, or 
  •     Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing  

OR, if you have at least two of the following symptoms:  

  •     Fever  
  •     Chills  
  •     Repeated shaking with chills  
  •     Muscle pain   
  •     Headache  
  •     Sore throat  
  •     New loss of taste or smell  

If you are unsure, contact your healthcare provider to evaluate your symptoms and determine if you need a test. Individuals who have been informed that they were in close contact with a confirmed positive case of COVID-19 will be encouraged to quarantine for 14 days and get tested if they have symptoms.

CHAS Health and the Community COVID-19 Screening Site at Spokane County Fair and Expo Center will evaluate and test people, who meet testing criteria, regardless if they have a regular healthcare provider or insurance. The Spokane Regional Health District website has a complete list of COVID-19 screening locations in Spokane County.

What Happens During Contact Tracing?

Contact tracing is a common public health practice used to stop the spread of communicable diseases. Contact tracing is being used for COVID-19 because the disease is highly infectious and can spread quickly. This is an effective measure to protect the health of the community and enable businesses to open and remain open.    

The process starts when a health care provider or laboratory reports a positive infectious disease test result to the public health department in the county where the patient resides. Within 24-hours, the health department contacts the patient to try to identify how the person got the disease and who they were in close contact with during the timeframe when they could have spread the disease to others. The health department official only asks questions related to the disease such as what type of symptoms the patient experienced, where they might have been exposed to the disease, what risk factors they have to the disease and who their close contacts are. They advise the patient on how to protect others through household cleaning routines and advise them to isolate themselves for a period of time until they are no longer infectious. If needed, they connect them to resources for medical care and other essential needs such as groceries.

Health departments are bound to the same privacy laws as other healthcare providers. They will not ask for information that is not relevant to the disease. Close contacts are notified that they may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and given follow-up guidance. They will not be told the name of the patient without the patient’s permission. Patient information is stored in a secure, HIPAA-compliant electronic patient record. 

Now that more testing is available to more people, Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) is anticipating the need for more staff to help with contact tracing. They have enlisted support from medical, nursing and public health students studying at Washington State University, University of Washington, and Eastern Washington University (EWU). These students have a working knowledge of medical terminology and can apply their knowledge in a public health setting. Faculty, from EWU’s Public Health Program, have developed a 3-hour, small group training to prepare the student volunteers for contact tracing and practice interviewing skills. They must pass a HIPAA-certification training to ensure they understand patient privacy laws and guidelines.

SRHD epidemiologists will lead the case investigations and supervise the student volunteers. They will assign the student volunteers with names of close contacts to notify that they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and provide guidance on what to do next. They will also connect people to resources, if needed. It is recommended that contacts quarantine themselves for 14 days from the date of last exposure. This is because they could unknowingly spread the disease to others even if they do not have any COVID-19 symptoms.

Unfortunately, there may be criminals that want to take advantage of this contact tracing effort to try and steal personal and financial information from people. Contact tracing staff will never ask for a person’s Social Security number or unrelated personal or financial information. If you are unsure, call SRHD at 509.869.3133 to verify the person is a legitimate caller. 

We appreciate the public’s support in participating in contact tracing calls to protect the health of others in the community and safely reopen businesses! For additional information about contact tracing, please see our Contact Tracing FAQ.