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D.C., White House officials begin talks on contact-tracing efforts after outbreak

Bowser (D) on Wednesday said the White House and D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt discussed contact tracing Tuesday, although it wasn’t clear what action might emerge from the talks.

“I can tell you that Dr. Nesbitt asked them about their processes. She shared with them our capabilities and how we could be supportive, as well, and I suspect that that dialogue will continue,” she said.

Bowser said Monday the city reached out to the White House last week about the outbreak but had received no response.

Asked Wednesday about the outbreak that involves more than a dozen people — including President Trump, first lady Melania Trump, several aides and journalists — Bowser said officials are “concerned about the spread of covid-19 in our city, regardless of where it happened.”

She encouraged anyone who works at the White House who thinks they might have been exposed to the virus to get tested at a city-operated testing location, a private doctor or through the White House.

“All D.C. residents should recognize that D.C. Health protects their information, and so D.C. Health will not talk about a specific White House staffer to anybody,” Bowser said.

In a phone call Wednesday with members of the D.C. Council, Nesbitt said she expects to have more discussions with White House officials about the outbreak.

“They have clarified for us what their contact-tracing process is, and our conversations will continue to be ongoing to ensure that we are getting all of the information that is necessary and the contact tracing and testing infrastructure is sufficient to capture everything that needs to be done,” she said.

During the call, Nesbitt noted that of 246 recent interviews with D.C. residents who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, 22 percent contracted it at a workplace, 13 percent while traveling, 19 percent at a restaurant and 22 percent at a social gathering.

The Rose Garden event Sept. 26 suspected of being at the center of the outbreak came as D.C.’s seven-day rolling average of new cases dropped below 40 this month, the lowest since early July. The rolling average of new cases stood at 53 on Wednesday — the highest since Sept. 17 — stemming mostly from a one-day spike Tuesday of 105 additional cases.

The 45 new D.C. cases announced Wednesday was near the city’s recent average, while the 1,014 new daily cases reported across the greater Washington region was the lowest since Sept. 28.

D.C. officials have said Tuesday’s jump could be the result of a backlog of more than 8,000 coronavirus test results the city recently received on a single day, rather than having any White House connection. Health officials said they are looking for trends in new infections but have warned against drawing conclusions after a single-day increase.

The growing spotlight on the White House outbreak has led to a rise in residents seeking coronavirus tests this week, with numbers up at the city’s free testing sites.

The region’s Democratic congressional delegation sent a letter Tuesday

Spam calls are hindering efforts to contact trace and track Covid-19

Nine months into a pandemic that has killed 210,000 people in the United States, health officials are imploring residents to answer their phones. The caller may be a disease tracker trying to save you from the deadly coronavirus.

a man talking on a cell phone: Joseph Ortiz, a contact tracer in New York City, gathers information as he heads to a potential patient's home.

© John Minchillo/AP
Joseph Ortiz, a contact tracer in New York City, gathers information as he heads to a potential patient’s home.

Contract tracing involves identifying sick people, isolating them and then tracing everyone with whom they’ve been in contact and putting those people into quarantine.

But many people wary of spam calls and phishing scams are not answering calls from unknown numbers, undermining efforts by contact tracers to reach people exposed to Covid-19. And some states such as Louisiana are sending letters to those people who don’t answer — not the most effective way when time is of the essence.

Without a federal contact tracing program, health departments have set up a patchwork of procedures. Some have worked with phone companies to ensure the name of the health department shows up on caller ID. For example, in Washington, DC, it shows up as DC Covid 19 Team.

Still, others appear as unknown numbers and are getting mistaken for spam calls. And even when they show up with the specific departments, some are still going unanswered.

“Hello? Yes, it’s you we’re looking for,” Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted, echoing the Lionel Richie song. “Contact tracing is a critical tool in getting our city back on its feet. Answer the call.”

The governor of Ohio is voicing the same message. State health officials say while they have 113 health jurisdictions and don’t collect the percentage of calls answered on a state level, local jurisdictions have reported less cooperation with tracers now than they did earlier in the pandemic.

“If you receive a call from a contact tracer — answer the call,” Gov. Mike DeWine said. “Contact tracing is incredibly important as we work to stop the spread of Covid 19.”

Robocalls have made things more complicated

In the age of identity theft, many Americans are rightly suspicious about sharing their personal information with strangers. And robocalls have not made things easier.

The number of robocalls received in the United States dipped in the early months of the pandemic, then ticked back up as call centers reopened.

In September alone, there were 3.8 billion robocalls recorded nationwide by tracking service YouMail. That’s about 127 million per day and an average 12 calls per person. With the desperate wait for coronavirus treatments and vaccines, scammers preying on pandemic fears are using such calls to offer bogus testing or seek personal information.

a group of people sitting at a desk in front of a television: Workers conduct coronavirus contact tracing from an office at the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County.

© Lynne Sladky/AP
Workers conduct coronavirus contact tracing from an office at the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County.

That has made people even more reluctant to share personal details by phone. For example, 45% of New Jersey residents with coronavirus reached by contact tracers refused to provide information for various reasons.

“This is about public health. No one is on a