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Contact-tracing expected to continue locally, but focus will shift after omicron cast doubt on effectiveness for individual cases

UPDATED: Fri., March 4, 2022

Dr. Umair Shah, then-Harris County Public Health Executive Director and current Washington health secretary, talks about COVID-19 contact tracing on June 25, 2020, in Houston.  (Associated Press)
Dr. Umair Shah, then-Harris County Public Health Executive Director and current Washington health secretary, talks about COVID-19 contact tracing on June 25, 2020, in Houston. (Associated Press)

The Spokane Regional Health District will continue COVID-19 contact tracing through 2022, after the district renewed its contract with the Public Health Institute for another year. But the efforts will likely look different, since the highly contagious omicron variant brought into question the effectiveness of contact tracing on an individual basis.

When cases got insurmountable , SRHD contracted with the institute to employ more contract tracers . Now, as the omicron wave continues to subside, the need for contact tracing locally will likely decrease.

Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez said the contract can slide in scale depending on the need

“It could change based on the cases and the need we have,” he told reporters this week.

The sheer volume of cases during the omicron wave forced both local and state health departments to shift their focus to the most high-risk settings, like homeless shelters , long-term care facilities, prisons and other congregate settings.

In early pandemic days, a confirmed case sent to the local health district prompted an investigation, where an epidemiologist would call the person who tested positive, determine where they had been and identify their close contacts. Those close contacts would typically receive notifications or phone calls to monitor themselves for symptoms or to get tested.

Omicron is more transmissible than any previous variant of the virus, and as such, it challenged contact tracers to cut off transmission before it was too late.

Additionally, the flood of free government at-home tests to households has made this part of disease response challenging. If a person does not report their positive test result to the Department of Health hotline, it wont be counted as a confirmed case in state data and passed along to the local health jurisdiction for investigation and contact tracing.

It’s a shift in pandemic response that State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said is more about “empowerment of people on what they can do individually.”

While high-risk settings are still required to report outbreaks to local health districts, individuals who test positive with an at-home test will have to use things like WA Notify and contact those they’ve been around about the possibility of exposure if they do not report their case to the health department.

The focus of the public health system will remain on people in settings where there’s an increased risk for transmission, Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, the state health department’s science officer, told reporters this week.

“The omicron variant made us realize the limit of contact tracing,” Kwan-Gett said.

As a result, health officials encouraged individuals to take personal responsibility if they test positive going forward.

Here’s a look at local numbers

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 117 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths on Friday.

There are 79 patients hospitalized with the virus in Spokane .

The Panhandle Health District reported 132 new COVID-19 cases, in addition to 3,750 backlogged cases.

There are 51 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

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.

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