King County, state work to hire more contact tracers as they struggle to keep up with surge

VIDEO: Surge in COVID-19 cases impacting contact tracers

The recent surge in cases is impacting local and state contact tracers who are struggling to keep up.

The Washington Department of Health reported members of the Washington National Guard, who had worked on contact tracing for five months until earlier in November, have transitioned to new missions.

The state said in preparation, it hired Mathematica, which partnered with Allegis and Comagine Health, to add contact tracers to the state’s existing pool of Department of Health employees.

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“Contact tracing is very strained right now both in King County and at the state level, and this is happening everywhere,” Dr. Jeff Duchin, with Public Health - Seattle & King County, said. He described the exponential growth on Friday.

“The bigger it gets, the faster it grows, larger and larger,” he said.

Public Health - Seattle & King County told KIRO 7 that with the help of the state, it can investigate about 575 cases each day. But with the numbers surging, and if they exceed capacity, they are now prioritizing the most impacted areas, particularly south King County. And others will receive a text message instead of a phone call with information about isolation, quarantine and testing.

Duchin said King County is prioritizing investigations concerning people who are high-risk and working to hire more contact tracers. Right now, King County has 75 contact tracers but aims to have 110 by the end of January.

King County’s jobs website shows positions such as Contact Tracing Lead, Consultant as well as a post for Disease Research and Intervention Specialist — Contact Tracing. That post states that “we are looking to hire up to 20 contact tracers” and that “we estimate that these roles will last through June 2021,” depending on funding.

Snohomish County is in a similar boat with cases.

“We’re actually doing more case investigations and more contact notification in terms of numbers of people reached than we have in recent weeks,” Dr. Chris Spitters, with the Snohomish Health District, said. “But the percentage of total cases and contacts is actually lower because there’s just so much out there.”

Snohomish County stated Monday that it has 58 temporary contact tracers and some surge capacity with permanent staff. But it’s still sending approximately 50 cases a day to the Washington Department of Health for its contact tracing teams to take on.

The hope? To avoid the situation described by a North Dakota contact tracer to The Washington Post.

The contact tracer said, “The virus is so rampant, we gave up.” They went on to say all they can do now is “notify people, as quickly as we can, that they are infected.”

Another contact tracer there, Ashlee Nelson, described the stress and frustration.

“It’s a little disheartening to see how cases continue to increase,” she said. “And unfortunately, we aren’t quite seeing the behavior change we would hope for.”