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Gov. Jay Inslee speaks to a crowd of tech leaders before the 2018 GeekWire Gala. (GeekWire Photo / Dan Delong)

Washington state plans to have 1,500 people conducting contact tracing by mid-May in an effort to map and control the spread of COVID-19 as the economy re-opens.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee outlined a phased approach to lifting the lockdown order that has been in place since March during an address Tuesday. The recovery plan starts with widespread testing — a challenge for states across the country — followed by rapid isolation of individuals with the virus and contact tracing to prevent it from spreading.

Contact tracing is a disease mitigation strategy in which investigators track down people who interacted with an infected individual during the window of contagion. It is traditionally done by phone calls and interviews, though governments are now exploring technology-driven contact tracing. Apple and Google are developing tools that use Bluetooth signals in mobile devices to track potential COVID-19 cases, raising new privacy concerns.

Coronavirus Live Updates:?The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

The tech companies plan to release software updates next month that enable their mobile operating systems to exchange anonymized keys with other phones that come in close proximity. When public health officials identify a positive COVID-19 case, they will be able to notify everyone whose phone was near the patient without revealing that person’s identity. This digital contact tracing could be a critical tool as we enter the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic, but privacy experts fear the technology could outlive the crisis.

During a briefing call Tuesday, Washington health officer Kathy Lofy said there are currently 600 people in the state government trained to do contact tracing and an additional 800 volunteers are learning the necessary skills. But she said contact tracing cannot be effective in Washington without “at least 2-3 times more testing than what we currently have.”

Inslee reiterated the issue, saying Washington is “drastically behind on what we need for testing supplies. The simple fact is that the nation is sorely lacking test kits.”

Researchers in Seattle and Washington are piloting a variety of testing protocols, including an at-home testing program that began reporting early results last week. The greater Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN) partnered with groups including?Amazon Care, a healthcare program for Amazon employees in the Seattle area, on infrastructure and logistics for the at-home tests.

The Food and Drug Administration authorized another diagnostic test with a home collection option for COVID-19 on Tuesday. The?Pixel by LabCorp COVID-19 Test home collection kit uses nasal swabs to collect specimens that can be mailed into a lab.

Reported cases of COVID-19 have been on the decline in recent weeks in Washington state. On Tuesday, the state Department of Health reported 197 new cases, bringing the cumulative total to 12,282 cases; and 30 deaths, bringing the state’s death toll to 682.

The original U.S. epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, Washington is now 15th among US states in cumulative cases. The state represents 1.5% of the more than 800,000 cases in the US, and a slightly larger percentage of the more than 40,000 deaths in the country.

The “stay home” order will remain in effect in Washington until May 4 at the earliest, though Inslee said Tuesday “we will not be able to lift many of the restrictions” by then. He compared the re-opening strategy to turning a dial, rather than flipping a switch.

“We believe we can soon allow some elective surgeries to resume provided health professionals have appropriate personal protective equipment,” Inslee said. “We also hope we can begin to let more people take part in more outdoor recreation.”

Other initial steps will include a “sensible plan” to allow construction to return in a limited capacity. Inslee warned that many businesses will need to adapt to new safety protocols and social distancing measures going forward.

The social distancing measures that have been in effect for a month in Washington appear to be reducing the virus’ spread, Inslee said. But he cautioned about the risks of lifting the restrictions too soon.

“We need healthy people in order to build a healthy economy,” Inslee said. “The data tells us that if we were to lift all restrictions right now, or even two weeks from now, this decline would almost certainly stop and the spread of COVID-19 would almost certainly go up.”

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