Opinion: State epidemiologist ‘proud’ of agency’s failed COVID contact tracing program, says everyone else is to blame

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center discusses the consistent failure of the state’s contact tracing program during the pandemic.

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center discusses the consistent failure of the state’s contact tracing program during the pandemic

Todd Myers
Washington Policy Center

Despite failing to come close to meeting their own COVID-19 contact tracing targets, the state epidemiologist is “proud of the state” for the program. On the other hand, he knows who is to blame for the state’s inability to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and meet its own goals: everyone else.

Todd Myers
Todd Myers

Having consistently failed to come close to meeting the self-imposed targets, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) announced that its COVID-19 Case Investigation and Contact Tracing is taking a “more strategic approach,” and investigating only in targeted or high-risk situations. Contact tracing is a program where state or local health agencies reach out to people who have tested positive, providing information on how to contact those they’ve been in contact with to warn them that they may have been infected.

As we have noted, despite identifying contact tracing as an important tool to limit the spread of COVID-19 and promising to “see improvement over time as we refine our processes for successfully contacting people,” the Inslee Administration never came close to meeting its own goals. The target, established in 2020, was that “90% of cases will be reached within 1 day of DOH receiving a positive lab result.”

The highest percentage of cases reached in one day by DOH was just over 60 percent. More frequently the percentages were between 20 and 30 percent, and even fell to single digits for entire months. Far from improving, the agency’s contact rate was worse in late 2021 and early 2022, than it was in 2020.

Despite that clear record of failure – by their own standards – the Department of Health and the State Epidemiologist Scott Lindquist refuse to accept accountability for the failure.

TVW anchor Austin Jenkins asked about the failure of contact tracing, saying “what you would say about the state’s efforts during these peaks to contact trace? Is that a fair assessment from critics that they pretty much didn’t work or failed?” Lindquist said, “I think that is unfair.” He said, “I think contact tracing did a lot to control disease, but,” he continued, “at some point where there’s so much disease contact tracing is not worth the time to do it.”

He finished by saying, “I’m actually proud of the state, where how they geared up early to do this contact tracing, and how they backed down once the volume was so high.”

All of this ignores that DOH set the targets, ran the program, and had weekly reports designed to measure their effort against those targets. If it wasn’t worth the time to do it, they didn’t say so until recently.

Remarkably, he then tried to shift blame to the public, saying “I mean, what person in the public didn’t know if you were positive, don’t go to work and school and please don’t expose new people and yet we continue to do it. So, we all failed it if we want to look at it that way.” Like Otter trying to defend Delta House, he tries to say the fault is not of the agency but of society in general.

That was the tack taken last month by DOH boss Dr. Umair Shah when asked about the state’s contact tracing failure. He said, “As we get more and more tools out to people that we will then have to be really relying on those individuals to take actions that are going to be protected for themselves and those around them.”

It is a pattern typical of government bureaucracies and the executives in charge. When a problem emerges, bureaucracies insist they must play the leading role, citing their superior expertise. They expand their authority and explain that nobody else is capable of addressing the problem. At some point it becomes clear that they are not succeeding and they look to blame others – political opponents or the general public – or claim that nobody (contrary to their earlier claims) could have solved the problem.

State government can play an important role in fighting crises and in some instances there are few alternatives to agencies playing a guiding or leading role. Our expectations of what government bureaucracies led by politicians can achieve, however, should be tempered by consistent reminders that their ability to meet important goals is limited. Additionally, rather than acknowledging shortcoming and adjusting based on new evidence, political leaders are slow to admit failure and will work hard to avoid accountability.

Given the continued denial of their own failings and shortcomings, it seems unlikely that politicians and agency leaders will learn that lesson. Instead, when the next crisis occurs, the public should realize that despite promises from politicians and bureaucracies, the responsibility for successfully addressing the emergency will fall on their shoulders.

Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center.

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