Washington building team of 1,500 COVID-19 contact tracers

VIDEO: Statewide testing, contact tracing needed to reopen economy

Gov. Jay Inslee said the state is building a team of 1,500 COVID-19 contact tracers that will be one of the key components in reopening the economy.

The state is also asking 500 members of the Washington National Guard to help with the effort, which will be activated with their new mission in “soon,” the Washington State Health Secretary John Weisman said in a teleconference Wednesday.

Three hundred additional healthcare professionals and volunteers will be also be trained, and the team will include 700 state and local public health employees who are already trained.

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The team is expected to be ready by mid-May.

"This workforce will be a rapid response team,” said Governor Inslee Tuesday.

Governor Inslee’s office said the team will focus solely on tracing who a sick person has been in contact with and telling those people to watch for symptoms, get tested or quarantine if needed. This helps contain outbreaks, and is not a new medical method, but the state says it’s never been done on the scale needed now.

Health officials say aggressive contact tracing, along with increased COVID-19 testing, is necessary in getting people back to work.

"We need to be processing about 20 to 30,000 tests a day for our contact tracing plan to really work,” said Governor Inslee.

The idea is, as the economy slowly reopens, testing and contact tracing will prevent a COVID patient from sparking a new outbreak.

“We need to be able to have a system who can quickly identify who’s COVID positive and get them (and their contacts) to stay home rather than the entire population,” Weisman said.

Tech companies are now working to help health officials with contact tracing efforts, which has raised privacy concerns.

"Once you start getting contact tracing, it’s a little but more complicated to keep people’s identity protected,” said Dr. Patricia Areán with UW Medicine, who’s recruiting people to test out an app intended to predict outbreaks. “You start pinging on other people’s phones and you’ve got a pretty good sense of where they are.”

Governor Inslee’s office told KIRO 7 it’s evaluating a “number of different technologies” that would help the state’s contact tracers but not replace them.

“We have met with folks from Google and Apple,” Weisman said. “We’re paying close attention to privacy and security issues of those apps. We’d want that info to be anonymous. And at this point in time we are not using that technology,” he said.

Some countries have used technology to not only track exposures but strictly enforce quarantines. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said people here shouldn’t worry about that.

“None of these technologies is perfect yet,” said Mayor Durkan. “I think we don’t want to be where some other countries are, that really, you have a barcode on whether you’re safe or not – that’s not who we are but at the same time, we want harness technology in a smart way.”

A spokesperson for Governor Inslee said the state does not yet know what the costs will be to handle contact tracing.