Washington County lacks sufficient contact tracers to re-open
While many Oregon counties have already submitted plans to re-open under new state guidelines, Washington County officials say the county may not be able to meet the state's re-opening criteria for another month.
Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday, May 7, a three-phase approach for gradually and conditionally lifting COVID-19-related restrictions on in-person activities for businesses, personal service providers, retailers and public spaces county by county.
In a statement Friday, May 8, Kathryn Harrington, chair of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, said the county is currently meeting all state re-opening prerequisites except for required contact tracing.
"Washington County is on track to having the staff needed to meet the governor's contact tracing guidelines by early to mid-June," Harrington said.
The timeline has drawn criticism from elected city officials in the county. Local businesses continue to suffer dramatic losses, with many closed and others trying to make do with online or phone ordering, and many residents are struggling to pay bills and buy groceries amid furloughs and layoffs.
On Monday, Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway condemned the county's timeline for having sufficient contact tracers.
"I too am disappointed that we are not farther along to re-opening and the completion of a Phase 1 re-opening Plan," Callaway said in a post on Facebook, referring to a constituent who notified him of the county's timeline. "We've known since before Gov. Brown officially released her plan on April 20 that 'contact tracers' were a necessary component to Phase 1 re-opening. It's simply not clear to me why it should take until mid-June, a month from now and two months from the release of the Governor's 're-opening Oregon' plan to have the last piece of the County's plan in place."
In late April, Brown announced a broad re-opening framework but didn't include details of how counties could receive state approval to re-open.
Last week, state authorities supplied a more detailed set of criteria for some forms of business to resume.
To meet the "Phase 1" criteria, as part of multicounty regions, counties must be able to test 30 people for every 10,000 total residents, have sufficient hospital bed capacity to handle a 20% surge in need and have a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment for first responders. Washington County is part of a region including Clatsop, Columbia, Tillamook, Clackamas and Multnomah counties.
Individually, counties must demonstrate the prevalence of COVID-19 is decreasing, measured by 14 consecutive days of declining hospitalizations; have a plan for quarantining new cases; and have sufficient capacity to conduct contact tracing.
"Contact tracing is the big lift for us," said Mary Sawyers, communications coordinator for Washington County Public Health.
Contact tracing involves interviewing confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 about who they may have had contact with while infected to identify other potential cases requiring quarantine.
Callaway said Hillsboro previously offered to provide city employees to help with contact tracing.
"We've not yet received a reply," he said.
Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin echoed Callaway's criticism of the county Monday.
"I think the county dropped the ball," Dalin said. "We knew contact tracing was going to be a significant part of any kind of re-opening plan as at least a month ago. I feel like they're in a very responsive mode. Obviously, emergencies require immediate action. But there should be someone there looking out ahead and going, 'Hey, we're going to need to hire contact tracers.'"
Sawyers said the county has been working to hire additional contact tracers for "several weeks."
The state's plan calls for at least 15 full-time employees per 100,000 residents to conduct adequate contact tracing. Washington County has more than 600,000 residents.
Sawyers said the county plans to staff 90 contact tracers and between 40 and 50 additional support staff dedicated to contact tracing efforts.
She said the county currently has about 40 employees doing contact tracing, but many of them may stop doing such work as the county hires new contact tracers because they also work in other county departments.
In urban areas with large populations, the number of potential contacts can grow rapidly, making contact tracing a long process requiring substantial numbers of staff, Sawyers said.
"The public doesn't necessarily understand how intensive it is to do contact tracing and to get the people hired to do it," Sawyers said. "You create a list of how many people they've had close contact with and may have exposed, and then you start contacting those people who might be sick, and so for each one of those people you call, you might have six to 10 more people to call."
Training people to properly conduct contact tracing, including adherence to medical privacy regulations, can be a long process, Sawyers said.
Washington County needs to hire contact tracers who are bilingual and have adequate cultural competency to be able to interact with the county's large Latino population, she said.
Nearly half of the cases of COVID-19 in Washington County have been among people who identify as Hispanic, the county recently said.
"That may not be as important for other counties, but (it is) for our county because we have so many Spanish-speaking people and Latinx people who have been disproportionately affected," Sawyers said.
The county is currently coordinating with community organizations to recruit people who could be hired to do contact tracing, Sawyers said.
By Monday, 24 counties had submitted their re-opening plans to the state.
To re-open bars and restaurants, gyms, salons and parks as part of Phase 1 of Brown's guidelines, counties must submit plans showing they are meeting prerequisite criteria and receive approval from the OHA.
Statewide, standalone retail shops such as boutiques, jewelry shops and furniture stores can re-open to customers on May 15, as long as they follow Oregon Health Authority guidelines for face coverings and physical distancing between customers.
It isn't clear when exactly Washington County will be able to submit its re-opening plan to the state for approval.
County Health and Human Services officials will present the county's full re-opening plan to the Board of Commissioners during a work session Tuesday afternoon, May 12.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.