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UW Virology head: As state struggles with contact tracing, system ‘needs to be improved’

Pierce County's contact tracing team. (Tacoma-Pierce County Public Health)

As Washington continues to battle its COVID-19 crisis, contact tracing efforts have fallen short of what the state has hoped to achieve. Even so, those efforts remain crucial for keeping the virus under control.

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A recent report released by the state Department of Health found that between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5, it had managed to contact 49% of confirmed COVID cases within a day of receiving a positive lab result, while contacting roughly 70% of case contacts within two days.

Those numbers are well short of the DOH’s goals of 90% and 80% respectively. That’s led to problems that UW Virology head Dr. Keith Jerome hopes to see fixed in the near future.

“I think that it’s not working as well as we wish it were, and it needs to be improved,” Dr. Jerome told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross.

According to state health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy, part of the problem is that some people simply won’t participate or are not willing to reveal the names of their close contacts, while others don’t respond at all.

Even with those issues, though, Jerome still sees value in continuing to ramp up contact tracing efforts.

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“I want people to understand that all these precautions we’re taking for this virus, whether it’s contact tracing, a mask, or a vaccine, they’re not success or failure; they’re not black and white. Everything is just trying to reduce the transmission a little bit,” he noted.

That being so, even when it’s not working optimally, contact tracing remains a key element in tracking and limiting COVID-19 cases. Essentially, it’s better to have some than none when it comes to any measure that mitigates the spread of the virus.

“It’s the same way with contact tracing,” Dr. Jerome said. “Yeah, it’s not even close to perfect right now, but it’s still helping, and we’ve got to make it better so that it helps more.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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