State officials: test, trace and isolate will be a key to reopening

In an address to the state yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee laid out a general path to reopening the state. Some restrictions will be lifted sooner than others, but three words seem to be one of the keys to a widespread return to normalcy, absent a vaccine or other treatment.

Test, trace and isolate.

Prior to Inslee’s address Tuesday, state officials expanded on what that effort would look like. David Postman, Inslee’s Chief of Staff, said the governor’s office is looking for a continuous decline of new cases — at least 14 days — along with that ability to rapidly test, trace and isolate to prevent a resurgence.

“It’s absolutely essential as we start to come out of this,” said Postman

The concept is relatively simple. Washington state wants to have an enormous number of test kits and materials at its disposal in order to test any resident immediately after they begin to show symptoms, get a specimen to the lab and have a result within 24 to 48 hours.

If the result is positive, that person immediately goes into isolation to prevent further spread while a member of a large team of trained individuals begins calling those who have been in close contact with the infected person.

So although it appears COVID-19 activity is on the decline in Washington — Dr. Kathy Lofy of the state Department of Health said activity peaked toward the end of March and is now trending down, especially in the Puget Sound region — the state is still identifying approximately 200 people per day with new infections.

That number remains an obstacle. With looser restrictions and folks heading back to work, an infected person could have anywhere between 10 and 30 close contacts, maybe even more. Multiplied by 200, contact tracing would require an enormous amount of manpower.

“You can see how the resources needed for contact tracing explodes,” Lofy said.

Presently, there are about 600 people at the Department of Health and local public health offices throughout Washington with about 800 more volunteers being trained. And the state plans to scale up even further.

Washington also has a shortage of testing supplies, as do many other states, needed to run the viral PCR test, the only reliable way to determine whether or not a person has a current infection, said Dr. Charissa Fotinos of the Washington State Healthcare Authority. This includes, swabs, viral transport media and the extraction material needed to perform the tests in labs.

Los Angeles County recently performed antibody tests on a select group of residents in order to find out if the disease is more widespread than currently known. This is useful for finding past cases, but it does not paint an accurate picture of the present situation.

Medical professionals do not yet know enough about COVID-19 and therefore cannot say if the presence of antibodies grants a person short- or long-term immunity from this strain of the coronavirus.

“We can’t guarantee that person is protected” Fotinos said. “We can’t guarantee that person won’t become reinfected.”

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