Contact tracing part of broad effort to contain COVID‑19 on WSU campuses

WSU Pullman campus open in a limited capacity in response to COVID-19.

As WSU campuses begin repopulating, the ability to quickly track potential COVID-19 infections is key.

The university is cooperating with health authorities statewide to facilitate contact tracing to help identify and isolate anyone associated with one of WSU’s campuses or other facilities who was in close contact with a confirmed case. In Pullman, more than half a dozen WSU employees have been trained in contact tracing by the Whitman County Health District.

Contact tracing is just one of several important efforts being made to contain the spread of COVID-19. Physical distancing, wearing face coverings, frequent hand washing, sanitizing common touch surfaces and not touching your face remain critically important to accomplishing this public health goal.

The Washington State Department of Health, through its network of county health districts, is responsible for identifying and notifying individuals who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. A guide to contact tracing is available courtesy of the state Health Department.

And while each of the university’s campuses will assist when asked, WSU is committed to complying with all privacy laws and won’t discuss potential infections involving students, faculty, staff or visitors with anyone other than those who have a legal reason to be notified.

“If you have been in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, your county’s health department, or a trained contact tracer assisting your local department, will be in touch with you directly,”  said Dwight Hagihara, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety at WSU Pullman.

WSU Pullman has seven people already trained as contact tracers covering the campus. Other WSU campuses are looking into collaborations with their health departments as the Fall 2020 semester approaches.

Contact tracing is a process of identifying and tracking the spread of infectious disease. It begins with healthcare providers alerting county health districts of a COVID-19 positive case. A trained interviewer then contacts the positive person and ask them for the contact information of close contacts. They won’t ask for a social security number or about immigration status.

Under current state and federal contact tracing protocols, a close contact is considered anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes within six feet of an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Once an interview is conducted, the interviewer will reach out to everyone who has been in close contact with the COVID-19 positive person. Those close contacts will then be advised to self-isolate at home for 14 days since the last time they were in contact with a confirmed positive to watch for the onset of potential COVID-19 symptoms.

The CDC has a complete guide to COVID-19 symptoms on its website.

If someone who has been in close contact with a COVID-19 positive person shows symptoms, they should call, not visit in-person, their healthcare provider and work with them on getting tested. The contact tracing process begins anew if that person tests positive for COVID-19.

But when a close contact doesn’t show symptoms in 14 days, they can return to normal activities. WSU Human Resource Services has an extensive guide on COVID-19 leave and work information available on its website.

It’s important for everyone to follow contact tracing guidelines from the state to minimize the potential for community spread of the disease. Already, some 600 people across the state of Washington have been trained on contact tracing.

Prior to students returning to WSU Pullman in the fall, the university will detail its plans and requirements around containing the spread of COVID-19. Resources like meal assistance for students isolating in residence hall rooms after potential exposure will be readily available.

Additionally, Whitman County has hotels where those who are required to self-isolate can stay at no charge to them if their homes or living circumstances make self-isolation impractical. WSU Pullman, the university system’s only residential campus, has followed suit, designating 150 beds so far to accommodate students needing to isolate.

Plans for deploying a mobile phone application to assist contact tracing are being discussed. For the latest information on efforts to contain COVID-19, including ongoing enhanced cleaning and disinfection procedures, visit WSU’s Environmental Health and Safety website.

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