State ‘surge plan’ activated ahead of Thanksgiving holiday

Health officials are worried about people lying to contact tracers about Thanksgiving and holiday plans, noting efforts to cover up gatherings that go against the governor’s orders could compromise contact tracing efforts. 

The state Department of Health told Q13 News it has activated its "surge plan" and is rapidly hiring more contact tracers to try to help overwhelmed local health jurisdictions. Currently, DOH said it is investigating cases for 18 of the 35 jurisdictions. 

Public Health Seattle-King County has the highest caseload in the state. County health officials told Q13 News that with DOH’s help, its robust contact-tracing staff of 75 people can investigate 575 cases a day. But the number of new daily COVID-19 cases is starting to outstrip the ability to thoroughly investigate everyone and it comes as health officials expect a Thanksgiving surge.

“Look, there is not enough contact tracing in the world to solve this problem if everybody has a giant turkey dinner this holiday,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday, urging families in Washington to avoid socializing out of their household this holiday. 

For every Thanksgiving feast of 15 people, state health officials said there’s a roughly 1-in-5 chance someone there will have COVID-19. The Thursday holiday is the first feared super-spreader event of the holiday season. The next fear has to do with being able to effectively trace contacts after the fact. 

“With COVID, there seems to be a particular amount of reluctance to share information by some people,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health Seattle-King County. 

As some choose to defy restrictions on gatherings for the holidays, health officials told Q13 News they are concerned people won’t be as forthcoming if there’s an outbreak or exposure.

“It’s a challenge because we know already that people don’t tell us everything,” Duchin said. “They don’t want to tell us something that’s going to get their friends in trouble. The person who hosted the party, they don’t want to mention that person’s name. They’ll tell us they were at a party with 10, 15, 30, 50 others. And they’ll even say, ‘Some of those people have COVID, they’ve gotten COVID after the party’, but they won’t want to talk to us about who hosted the party.”

But that kind of information is what contact tracers need to help limit the spread of the deadly virus. Health officials are urging people to tell the truth if called. 

King County health officials pointed out that contact tracing is about educating, not punishing people who violate restrictions. They said it’s important to be honest with contact tracers so they can get important information about testing, quarantine, and medical services to people who need it. 

As for how overwhelmed contact tracers are getting with the current caseload, Seattle-King County told Q13 News they hope to grow from a team of 75 to 110 trained contact tracers by the end of January.