Contact Tracing Center

Public health employees work at Umatilla County Public Health’s contact tracing center at the Umatilla County Courthouse in Pendleton in early May.

COVID-19 is spreading in Walla Walla County faster and as tracing becomes more difficult than ever before.

Public health officials said on social media the unknown exposure rates of the virus in the area have doubled, from 20% of new cases Oct. 24-Nov. 6, to 39% in the overlapping time frame of Oct. 31-Nov. 13.

Walla Walla County’s Department of Community Health has reported 12 COVID-19 related deaths since Nov. 1, officials said.

Despite rising death tolls, both Walla Walla and Umatilla counties are experiencing a lack of cooperation from residents with contact tracers.

Those are the public health workers who make the calls to not only folks who have tested positive for the coronavirus, but the people they have been around.

Each call can ripple out to multiple people. It is difficult work at best and becomes onerous when people refuse to answer questions or even pick up the phone.

Joseph Fiumara, director of Umatilla County Public Health, said this week that when and where exposure to the virus can’t be confirmed — such as from a workplace or social gathering — a case must be listed as “sporadic” or unknown.

When people are not forthcoming, his staff can’t know the links necessary to protect the rest of the community, said Fiumara, who has noted in the past his county gets dinged by Oregon officials for the numbers of cases listed as sporadic.

In July and again in early October a rise of such cases led to the county’s placement on the state’s “watch list.” The list identifies counties in need of state intervention in controlling COVID-19 spread.

Health officials can understand people are hesitant to talk about where they’ve been and who they’ve been with, particularly if the activity is supposed to be restricted or eliminated for the time being, Fiumara said.

However, that’s not what his contact tracers are looking for — they want to find the root of the exposure so that everyone at risk from it can take precautions for their own health, including getting tested, Fiumara explained.

The biggest challenge: If people refuse to address possible COVID-19 exposure or their own potential infection, the fear is they will not quarantine for it, he said.

Workers at Walla Walla County Department of Community Health are finding the same.

The lack of information makes it hard to understand how and where the virus transmission is happening.

Thus protecting the community as a whole is more difficult, officials said in the post.

“Our business case investigation team reports dramatic growth in cases at local businesses in all sectors including: professional services, retail, hospitality and restaurants, agriculture and health care.

“These cases are impacting workforce capacity,” the unsigned post said Wednesday.

The department is asking local businesses to continue checking employees daily for signs of COVID-19, including taking temperatures, asking if they are waiting for test results or if they know of possible exposures to themselves.

If the answer is yes, those employees must quarantine to minimize the chance of spreading the disease to colleagues and customers.

Health care providers here are telling officials COVID-19 is more contagious than ever.

“Please remember that trusted friends and family members can accidentally expose others to COVID before they show any symptoms,” the post said.

Walla Walla County has partnered with Washington state’s tracing and case investigation support services to help with the load, Interim Director Nancy Wenzel told commissioners earlier this month.

The state Department of Health provides daily surge support, including holidays, Wenzel said.

Staff in Walla Walla start each day by reviewing new case information and, after assessing their capacity for the day, assign cases in-house or to the state’s team, she said, noting this partnership provides a safety net for staff and residents.

In Umatilla County, Fiumara’s office sends a letter to everyone thought to be exposed to the disease, whether they answered the tracing call or not, he said.

“We give them guidelines and we give them resources.”

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Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.