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Washington health department enlists private firms to aid state’s contact-tracing efforts

The Washington State Department of Health has enlisted several private firms to support local case-investigation and contact-tracing efforts across the state.

The agreement with Mathematica, Comagine Health and Allegis will boost the state’s contact-tracing efforts through Feb. 1, when the firms’ six-month contract is set to expire.

So far in the pandemic, National Guard members, reassigned state employees, volunteers and staff members from the Department of Health have been doing much of the state’s contact-tracing work.

Cynthia Harry, a director at the Department of Health, said that at any point during the pandemic the state health department was doing case-investigation and contact-tracing work for between 30% and 60% of COVID-19 cases in the state.

The work done by Mathematica, Comagine Health and Allegis will be paid for with funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The contract includes a $21 million cap. DOH directors said about $9 million has been allocated to the firms so far.

The contract will pay for case investigators and contact tracers, many of whom will be Washington residents. Though the work will be done remotely, the firms will aim to hire people from the communities where the tracing is being conducted .

“It’s a requirement to have a community-based approach to contact tracing, but it’s also the right way to do it because to be effective you have to speak the same language. You have to have the local voice to understand the barriers and meet people where they’re at,” Dr. Candace Miller, a director at the Department of Health said.

Managers and supervisors have been hired, and the first group of contact tracers will begin training on Sept. 7.

Harry said contracted workers will likely be doing case investigations and contact tracing in both large and small counties.

“The Department of Health is here to serve in a surge capacity to local health jurisdictions,” Harry said. “We’ve received requests from both urban and more rural communities with limited resources.”

The addition of new tracing resources comes as cases in the state continue to decline, with about 520 cases now reported statewide each day. Earlier this summer, as many as 800 new cases were reported daily.

Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 45 new cases on Thursday, and two more residents died from the virus. Fifty patients are receiving treatment for the virus in local hospitals, and 36 of those patients are county residents.

The number of new cases reported each day is on the decline in North Idaho, too.

The Panhandle Health District reported 29 new cases on Thursday, for a five-county total of 2,696 cases. So far, 43 Panhandle residents have died from the virus and 19 residents are hospitalized.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.