Clark County officials say a new COVID-19 contact-tracing partnership between the county and the nonprofit Public Health Institute (PHI) is helping county residents, including those in Camas and Washougal, move safely through Governor Jay Inslee’s four-phase state reopening.
“Our experience with PHI has exceeded our expectations,” Alan Melnick, Clark County’s public health director and health officer, stated in a news release. “PHI provides services in multiple languages, they respect diversity and understand how the social determinants of health affect morbidity and mortality from COVID-19.”
The Tracing Health initiative uses contact-tracing — identifying and helping those potentially exposed to COVID-19 quarantine in their homes — to “flatten the curve” and help slow the spread of the coronavirus as communities slowly reopen businesses, restaurants, churches and public spaces.
“Everyone that gets COVID-19 typically passes it on to two people, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but that would mean cases would double everyday,” said Marta Induni, program director for Tracing Health. “If you can knock that down to just one person, then you’re holding steady.”
After the county identifies a positive COVID-19 case, investigators work to come up with a list of that person’s known contacts — those who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. This is where PHI’s 10-person teams — eight contact tracers, one supervisor and one resource coordinator — come in.
“We inherit both the case and the contact list,” Induni said. “We do daily follow-up and make sure people are successful with their quarantine or isolation.”
The program helps connect people in quarantine with whatever resources they might need to make it through the shelter-in-place period. Federal CARE Act funds, distributed to the county and many local health clinics and hospitals, are available to help quarantined contacts and those ill with COVID-19 pay for things like groceries, rent, utilities and other basic needs.
“We do daily follow-up, which is called ‘active monitoring,'” Induni explained. “It’s not so much that we’re policing as we are finding a need.”
“We want to make sure that those who have been exposed to the virus or become ill have the support they need to stay home in quarantine,” she added. “People should know that even if they have been exposed to the virus, their homes, families and employment will still be safe.”
The Tracing Health program’s work recently allowed Clark County to move forward with its Phase 2 variance after nearly 80 employees at Firestone Pacific Foods, a frozen fruit packing facility in Vancouver, tested positive for COVID-19. On June 5, just one week after receiving the contract with Clark County, the Tracing Health program had cleared more than 100 employees at Firestone and achieved an 85-percent contact rate.
“PHI immediately provided assistance and, as a result, we were able to control the (Firestone) outbreak and keep it from spreading further into our community,” Melnick said.
PHI currently has three teams of 10 working in Clark County and anticipates hiring more contact tracers, supervisors and resource coordinators as the county moves through its last two phases of reopening.
Having recognized that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, PHI recruited local bilingual and multilingual staff, many of whom have a background in public health or social service work.
“Our swift hiring and training of this local, culturally responsive workforce means that already we have local community members reaching out to help people find out if they have been in contact with COVID-19 and what to do next,” Emily Henke, executive director of Oregon Public Health Institute (OPHI) stated in a news release. “Every one of our Tracing Health team members applied for this job because they see and feel the impact of COVID-19 on their communities. They want to use their language skills, professional backgrounds, and lived experience to help during this pandemic. If residents receive a call from us, we want them to know that we’re here to help and will put their health, safety, and comfort first. During this time of public health crisis, we are dedicated to implementing solutions that build trust, advance equity, and position communities to reopen safely.”
OPHI and PHI are continuing to hire for contact tracers, supervisors, resource coordinators and scientific staff, including data analysts, epidemiologists and research supervisors.
Induni said all of the people who have applied for contact tracing jobs have mentioned their desire to help others in their community during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Who makes a good contact tracer? Someone with empathy. Someone who wants to be helpful. Someone who is committed and doesn’t mind working at a computer and talking to worried or maybe resistant people,” Induni said. “We prefer to hire local folks. Most of those we’ve hired have been bilingual and bi-cultural. Everyone wants to be helpful in this time and we have a very dedicated workforce. This is what is needed to keep opening up (our) communities.”
Clark County residents interested in applying for a position with PHI’s Tracing Health initiative, can find more information at phi.org/employment/current-opportunities.