Tracking Down COVID-19
Posted on 04/10/2020
Investigative Process

In Washington State, health care providers, health care facilities, laboratories, veterinarians, food service establishments, child care facilities, and schools are legally required to notify public health authorities at their local health jurisdiction of suspected or confirmed cases of selected diseases or conditions. These are referred to as notifiable conditions.

Most of Washington State's notifiable conditions can be found on the List of Notifiable Conditions on the State Department of Health webpage. For a complete list of notifiable conditions, see WAC 246-101.

Public health surveillance includes reporting, investigation, collection, and distribution of data about illness and death. This surveillance helps prevent and control disease in Washington State by:

  • describing disease trends
  • identifying and controlling the sources of infection
  • preventing disease
  • educating the public, policy makers, and health care planners so they can make informed decisions

Benton-Franklin Health District investigates communicable diseases every day. Our Surveillance and Investigation Branch contains the communicable disease program, which is usually staffed by six people. When there is an outbreak, like E.coli or norovirus, we expand staffing to around 10. COVID-19 has required an enormous effort. With over 400 cases identified to date, BFHD has moved 24 staff and eight volunteers into this area for coverage seven days a week.

In some ways, disease investigation is a lot like detective work. We need to look at many pieces to complete the puzzle and identify people who are ill. How are you, when did you get it, who did you give it to? Sometimes, we have all the pieces. Sometimes, we need more.

Investigating COVID-19 

When a person tests positive for COVID-19, BFHD receives the positive lab result. With that notification an investigation process is started by public health experts.

We first check in with the person who tested positive to see how they are. We remind the person to stay home. We ask when their symptoms started and where the person may have been during their contagious period.

We also ask the person about close contacts who would be at highest risk for getting COVID-19. Close contacts include someone who:

  • Lives in the same household as a sick person with COVID-19
  • Cares for a sick person with COVID-19
  • Was within 6 feet of a sick person with COVID-19 for about 10 minutes
  • Was in direct contact with secretions from a sick person with COVID-19

Close contacts at highest risk are contacted and asked to quarantine themselves, that is, to stay home for 14 days and monitor themselves for symptoms. We may notify agencies that could be affected as the investigation unfolds. If you were ever identified as a close contact, the Health District would connect with you. We have implemented a secure electronic survey to facilitate this communication with close contacts. If they prefer, close contacts may call us to complete the survey.

Contact tracing and disease investigation are not new to the Health District. The scope of the pandemic has required extraordinary efforts by our staff and volunteers. The information will help us limit the spread of COVID-19 now and in the future.