Opinion: To contain COVID, empowering individuals vastly outperformed Washington’s bureaucratic systems

Gov. Jay Inslee
Gov. Jay Inslee

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center shares that the technology that is now available allows a more effective and ethical response that honors the rights and dignity of individuals

Todd Myers
Washington Policy Center

During the next several years, health researchers will look at the COVID pandemic to learn lessons about how to deal with future outbreaks and understand how to improve the performance of our health system. Based on the experience in Washington state, one lesson should be clear: while government programs failed badly, technology that provided information directly to potentially exposed individuals gave hundreds of thousands of people a tool that could help contain the pandemic.

Todd Myers
Todd Myers

This approach is not only more effective, but it is more moral, allowing people to make important personal decisions rather than having costs imposed on them arbitrarily by politicians.

To see why, we can compare the results from the state’s program to contain the spread of the illness and the COVID-exposure app developed by Google and others to provide people with information about potential exposure.

At the beginning of 2022, as COVID rates in Washington state spiked to their highest level of the pandemic, the Washington State Department of Health’s (DOH) system to notify those who may have been exposed virtually collapsed. Known as “contact tracing,” the state pledged to call those who tested positive and see who they might have exposed to help contain the spread of the illness.

DOH’s leadership pledged to reach 90% of those infected within one day of a positive test. During the worst two months of the outbreak, the highest percentage DOH reached in any week was 7 percent of COVID-positive patients. At the peak of the outbreak in mid-January, they reached only three percent. During that critical period, DOH reached fewer than 12,000 people. At no point in the nearly two years of the program did it come anywhere close to reaching 90 percent.

By any metric – including the state’s own – the results were abysmal. A failure.

By way of contrast, those who voluntarily signed up for information about potential exposure using a privately developed app on their phone received immediate and actionable information.

Since it was launched at the end of November 2020, the WA Notify app sent about 3.5 million notifications letting people know they were close to someone who tested positive. Those who chose to put the app on their phone – like me – received a notification, encouraging them to pay attention for symptoms and get tested if they feel ill.

Some worried about privacy, and I understand that. The app is designed to protect privacy and doesn’t keep information. Both Apple and Google prohibited the use of GPS location when reporting exposure.  Understandably, some don’t trust those promises. My response is that companies have many ways to get more useful personal information than this app. And if you test positive at your doctor’s office, it is reported to DOH, so the app isn’t giving information that isn’t collected in other ways.

The numbers are somewhat difficult to pin down because the app doesn’t track any personal identification information, but the state estimates that 1.2 million people used the app.

In the 91 weeks since it was launched, WANotify sent an average of 38,400 notifications – more per week than DOH reached during nine weeks of the worst outbreak.

Although the app was voluntary – people didn’t have to download if they were uncomfortable – it vastly outperformed DOH’s contact tracing effort. Unlike the state’s contact tracing effort that encouraged the few COVID-positive patients they reached to notify others they might have exposed, the app did it immediately and anonymously. Patients who used the app could report a positive test and the app would contact others directly without disclosing who might have exposed them. That is far more effective and comprehensive, and eliminates the potential embarrassment of having to tell a friend they might have been exposed.

This approach reached many more people, more quickly, and it made more sense. The strategy employed by Governor Inslee was summed up when he said that “only one man” (him) could address the COVID pandemic in Washington state. That is not only extremely undemocratic, but the harm done by bad policies are felt by individuals, not the governor. We saw the government notification system’s failure when the two largest outbreaks occurred after the governor declared he had won the “Super Bowl” of COVID policy. That arrogance had consequences.

Government systems that failed badly were never fixed and were, in fact, ignored because the failure would be a political embarrassment. Contact tracing never came close to meeting its goal. Poor systems of testing were fixed belatedly, only after media attention. Washington’s rollout of vaccines was one of the slowest in the country. These government failures had a cost, and the mindset of centralized authority made it difficult (or impossible) for individuals to get services outside failing government systems.

Giving individuals the information they need to monitor their own health and prevent the spread to others around them is more respectful of individual circumstances and doesn’t rely on bureaucratic systems working as planned. It can reach more people, more reliably, and more quickly.

Of course, many people will choose not to participate for one reason or another. But when the government alternative is reaching fewer than 10 percent of people they know tested positive, quibbling about the non-participation of some people seems trivial.

Before there were tools available to empower individuals to take action, a top-down, government-centered approach could be justified on the basis that while they may perform poorly, they were the only option. That is no longer the case. The technology that is now available allows a more effective and ethical response, that honors the rights and dignity of individuals. In the future, that voluntary, technology-based approach should be the center of our response rather than the failed government-heavy approaches that characterized Washington’s COVID response.

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

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    1. Sylvia

      It clearly implies fear, suspicion and, most of all, lack of trust, little or confidence.
      The PLANdemic has merely amplified the social elements that have been present during most of US history.

      Perhaps a future leader will have the skills and honesty to make a genuine attempt at reducing divisiveness, and collaborate with us all to Unite America.

      What are your thoughts?

  1. Tony

    disclosure: I’m an independent thinker who is a real lefty and not one of those blue check democrats who are pseudo liberals; I have no identification to any political party and worked in hospitals and home health settings for 40 years. I have never seen so much ignorance and stupidity in my life as I saw during this pandemic. Here are things that are not debatable . It is fact, based on 40 years of studies, controlled trials and observational trials that have been common sense in the healthcare field forever, until Covid

    fabric surgical or cotton masks do not protect anybody from atomized, aerosol viruses. I needed a surgical mask when I was doing a debridement of dead burned skin , so I wouldn’t spit on an opened wound. All the studies from the 1980s on show that if you need protection from aerosol virus you better have a WELL FITTED N 95 mask.

    The lockdowns were totally arbitrary and had absolutely no science behind it. Dr. Scott Atlas on the Covid Task Forced warned Brix and Fauci of the consequences of lockdown of people who were never at risk but they had their own agendas

    Covid 19 was only a risk to the elderly , immuno compromised and those with certain comorbidties . This is no different that any other respiratory pathogen whether virus or bacteria.

    The mRNA covid vaccines were not vaccines at all. A vaccine has to prevent disease to the one vaccinated and not be able to spread disease to others. This shot did not do either. By definition it is not a vaccine and would have never been approved if it wasn’t pushed by the Emergency Authorization .

    Gov. Insley had no idea what he was doing. He just went with whatever his party was advocating and they were wrong on all counts. They probably killed more people with all cause mortality in people who were never at risk from this virus. They pushed “The Vaccine” and masks and that’s it. No repurposed drugs that made a huge difference and it was well documented that anti virals and anti inflammatories worked to save lives. As far as I’m concerned Insley and all those stooges that pushed policy that were contrary to the available science or had no science at all, have blood on their hands from pushing a political agenda that was based on profit , fear and coercion . Screw them

    1. Wolfie

      Thank you, Tony. There are several of us on here and around other social media groups who have basically been saying the same thing. I do not have your years of experience or expertise. I am, however, a very deep critical thinker and I question pretty much everything. When this first started, my jaw hung open. Wear a mask against a virus when we of a certain age have lived with viruses our whole lives??? Take a vaccine that isn’t really a vaccine and hasn’t gone through years of study like the standard ones we grew up with? Then the whole Kabuki theater of wear to walk to your table, then take it off. But not if you are Newsom or other politicians. Because the virus picks and chooses who it affects. Force people to take this or lose their jobs.. and now there is a teacher ‘shortage’. Defund the police but let politicians keep their hired security.. who have guns. It is all just a bunch of nonsense and when I see people wearing their masks in their cars, I just have to shake my head. The level of fear that people wallow in is absolutely unreal. I hope folks wake up.


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