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COVID-19 contact tracing app coming soon for Washington residents who opt in

Gov. Jay Inslee is pictured wearing a mask.  (SR)
By Jim Camden and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

Washington state will join California and Oregon in soon launching a voluntary contact tracing application that Google and Apple jointly developed that alerts users if they have been exposed to the coronvirus.

The app will be voluntary and anonymously notify a user if they have been exposed to someone who tests positive, Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday.

“You volunteer to share your information, if you desire, with the app, and you’re voluntarily notified should you desire that,” Inslee said. “And all of this is maintained with great privacy protections. We’ve insisted on that.”

Washington Department of Health officials have had mixed results when it comes to their contact tracing efforts, and while they have the adequate staffing to make calls in 16 counties that require their help, State Secretary of Health John Wiesman told reporters Wednesday, that their challenges are not unique.

“Other states have been experiencing the same kinds of issues with folks not returning calls or difficulty getting the phone numbers,” he said.

Ideally, contact tracing and case investigations are done at a local level, Wiesman said, and the majority of local health jurisdictions in the state are doing their own case investigations and contact tracing, or bringing on contractors to help. Last week, in Spokane County, 76% of COVID-19 cases were epidemiologically-linked, connected to one another through contact tracing or investigators identifying spread in a similar location.

A report from DOH shows that their case investigators made contact with about 65% of people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 for an interview.

Wiesman said the Apple-Google application product is forthcoming, and the department is working with the companies to identify some “pilot opportunities.”

Meanwhile, virus activity has grown in certain parts of the state, particularly around college campuses. Whitman County, where Washington State University students have driven up virus rates, now has 1,091 confirmed cases, primarily in young adults. One person is now hospitalized with the virus there.

Inslee acknowledged the “significant growth” of the pandemic at colleges .

“There’s been an enormous spike on the Pullman campus,” he said, later describing it as between 800 and 900 cases. “When they are congregating off the campus, that’s where we’re seeing big transmission.”

On Wednesday he met with college officials and student leaders in an effort to develop strategies for keeping students safe.

“When we keep our students safe we also keep the community safe,” he said. “We all have a stake in what’s happening as our students return.”

His staff will be speaking with student leaders on other campuses to design communication strategies.

The most important strategy for people in that age group is “peer influence, peer pressure,” Inslee said.

He said he believes the student organizations he talked with Wednesday will be aggressive and smart with their messages. He saw signs on the Pullman campus that said “‘Pullman sucks.’ People understand that language. Another sign said ‘Don’t be a Covidiot.’”

He said that’s the most effective technique to change behavior, but added that students who receive a citation from Pullman police have that citation referred to the student conduct association, which could make some sanctions. Police are issuing financial citations and the Pullman City Council is considering making partygoers, as well as the person throwing the party, responsible for citations.

“That could happen in other communities. Those are decisions that will be made by the local communities,” he said.

Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 73 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the county total to 6,113 , although 80% of those who have had the virus have recovered.

The recent bump in cases is not constrained to concentrated outbreaks in certain locations but instead indicates there are positive cases in many worksites and places.

Another Spokane County resident died from the virus, and there are now 28 Spokane County residents hospitalized.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 33 new cases of the virus in the five-county region on Thursday. The region’s COVID-19 activity had dropped at the end of August, but the percent positivity appears to be on the rise again. The percent positivity rate is at 5.8% after dropping down to 4.3% at the end of August. A dozen Panhandle residents are receiving treatment in hospitals for COVID-19, and 55 residents have died.

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.