By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — An important element in the arsenal used by local public health officials to limit the spread of COVID-19 — in addition to wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and washing hands — is contact tracing.
Of the total number of COVID-19 cases in Kitsap County, 282 were in South Kitsap. The positive cases of COVID-19 reported in the county since March is 1,148, according to local health officials.
Twelve virus-related deaths have been confirmed in the county by the Kitsap Public Health District over the same period.
“Contact tracing is one of the most effective tools we have to control the spread of infectious diseases, especially when a vaccine is not available,” said Tad Sooter, the Kitsap Public Health District’s public information officer.
“Through contact tracing, we can alert community members who may have been exposed to a virus and help them take steps to protect their health and avoid spreading the virus to others,” Sooter said.
Contact tracing is triggered when a person tests positive for COVID-19.
When someone tests positive for the virus, the testing lab or health care provider involved is required by law to notify public health officials, who then open a case investigation. A contact tracer first reaches out to the infected person, usually by phone. The individual is advised to stay home until they are no longer contagious, according to the public health district.
The contact tracer interviews the person testing positive to determine who the individual has been in close contact with while they were infectious. A close contact is anyone who has been within six feet of them for 15 minutes or more while they were infectious, health district officials said.
Interviewers then reach out to inform close contacts that they have possibly been exposed to. These individuals are told about the steps they need to take to avoid spreading the virus to others.
“We encourage community members to get tested as quickly as possible if they experience any COVID-19 symptoms. Receiving positive results quickly allows us to notify close contacts rapidly and prevent additional exposures,” Sooter said.
Interviewers do not reveal the name of the person who tested positive, the spokesman said.
Close contacts are advised to stay home and check for symptoms over a 14-day period after their exposure. Investigators reach out daily to both the person testing positive and their close contacts to provide guidance and connect the individuals with community resources.
Kitsap County has 45 interviewers assigned to case investigations and contact tracing. Investigators are either Kitsap Public Health employees or employees from other county departments.
“Our team is led by a core group of experienced disease investigators with extensive public health experience,” Sooter said. Those new to the program receive training and shadow experienced employees, he said.
Contact tracing is effective when public health officials are able to make contact with those who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, according to health officials.
“Effective case investigation and contact tracing depend on active community participation. It’s important for community members who are identified as close contacts to respond when they get a call from our contact tracing team,” Sooter stressed.
Information gathered by investigators is confidential, state Department of Health officials said. Data collected is used only by public health agencies and is not shared with anyone else. Social Security numbers, a subject’s immigration status, or financial ability to pay for services are off-limits to investigators.
Individuals are not required to answer questions when contacted by contact tracers. Public health officials, however, encourage subjects to provide information to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the community.
Updates on COVID-19 in Kitsap County are updated on the county’s Public Health District website at kitsappublichealth.org.