Press Release

PHI’s COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Support Program, Tracing Health, Contributes to Reopening Efforts in Washington and Oregon

The Public Health Institute (PHI) has launched Tracing Health, its new COVID-19 contact tracing initiative, with work already started with its partners in Clark County, Washington and Washington County, Oregon to help residents stay healthy, access resources and move the counties through all four phases of reopening. 

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Brandie Campbell

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a contact tracer in a mask and headset at a computer station

Oakland, CA, Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA—The Public Health Institute (PHI) has launched Tracing Health, its new COVID-19 contact tracing initiative, with work already started with its partners in Clark County, Washington and Washington County, Oregon to help residents stay healthy, access resources and move the counties through all four phases of reopening. 

In Washington County, PHI and the Oregon Public Health Institute (OPHI) collaborated to launch contact tracing efforts in just a few days. The agreement with Washington County was signed on Friday, May 15, and jobs were posted within one business day. Within six workdays more than 1,000 people had applied and twenty-one job offers had been made. By June 8, nearly thirty contact tracers were hired, trained and ready to make their first calls.

OPHI’s strong relationship with local community organizations and emphasis on equity, coupled with PHI’s powerhouse operational infrastructure and in-house expertise are resulting in rapid implementation of an evidence-based effort that community members can trust. Recognizing that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, recruitment efforts focused on hiring individuals who have experience supporting communities most impacted by health inequities. In Washington County, over 90% of the staff hired are bilingual or multilingual,  (covering six languages in addition to English). Many have experience in public health and social service work, and several are community health workers trained in culturally-specific approaches. Some are experienced professionals re-entering the workforce after recent unemployment, and others are beginning their public health careers. All hires are residents of Washington County.

Clark County, Washington was facing one of the Northwest area’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak clusters, at the Firestone Pacific Foods frozen fruit packing facility, which had reported 79 employees testing positive for the virus. By Friday June 5—just 1 week  after receiving the contract—Tracing Health had cleared over 100 employees at Firestone to return to work. Tracing Health achieved an 85% contact rate from the Firestone cluster—a success rate which allowed Clark Country to control the outbreak’s spread and gave its 500,000 residents the ability to move to Phase II reopening.

“Our experience with PHI has exceeded our expectations,” said Alan Melnick, Public Health Director and Clark County Health Officer. “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. PHI staff and leadership quickly integrated their work with our Incident Management Team. PHI provides services in multiple languages, they respect diversity and understand how the social determinants of health affect morbidity and mortality from COVID-19.”

In addition to contact tracing, data entry, disease surveillance and outbreak investigations, the program connects individuals to the resources they 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,” said Marta Induni, program director for Tracing Health. “People should know that even if they have been exposed to the virus, their homes, families and employment will still be safe.”

“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,” said Emily Henke, executive director of OPHI. “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.”

In Washington County, if COVID case numbers surge, Tracing Health will continue to hire and train more staff. County officials there say that the Tracing Health program, along with a smaller contract with another local group, will allow the county to do contact tracing for 95% of new cases within 24 hours, as required by Oregon’s Phase 1 guidelines. 

The Tracing Health program model involves small teams of contact tracers each working with a Resource Coordinator who can provide people in isolation or quarantine with connections to food banks, mental health services, visiting nurses, and other community programs. The model is designed to be quickly scalable and able to pivot to hotspots. PHI plans on expanding Tracing Health to other states, beginning on the West Coast. 

Contact tracing is a proven, evidence-based tool to help “flatten the curve” and slow the rate of new COVID-19 infections. As the work involves phone contact with potentially exposed residents, staff will be trained in phone interviewing skills and interacting with an empathetic, professional demeanor. Contact tracers relay the latest public health information about symptoms and recommendations to self-isolate (or quarantine), as well as connect clients with needed resources and services.

PHI is continuing to hire for contact tracers, supervisors, resource coordinators and scientific staff (data analysts, epidemiologists, and research supervisors) for the program. If available, positions will be listed on the PHI employment page.

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