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What is contact tracing, and how will it work in Oregon?

Oregon Governor Kate Brown says contact tracing is a critical part of her plan. It's all an attempt to prevent COVID-19 from having a strong rebound.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Have you heard about contact tracing? It's a process you may soon start hearing a lot about in Oregon and other states, as leaders look for pathways to reopening closed economies.

The concept is that once a person is identified with the virus, you quickly try to find everyone they may have infected and warn them to isolate, so the virus can not jump to anyone else.

Public health officials in Oregon started talking about contact tracing back in February, when doctors confirmed the first COVID-19 patient in Oregon.

But over time, as more and more cases were confirmed, health experts said we should all consider ourselves infected and just stay home.

Behind the scenes, the contact tracing continued in Multnomah County and elsewhere.

“We ask them - who have you been around that you may have spent more than an hour in close face-to-face contact, or they might have had contact with your respiratory secretions,” said Lisa Ferguson, who leads the team for Multnomah County.

Did you catch that? Officials have found that being around someone less than an hour reduces your chance of getting infected.

And that two-week incubation period?

“For most people it’s more like four to five days. And so we do have a short window of time that we need to try to identify people who are sick or who might become sick,” Ferguson said.

Now that the infection curve has flattened in Oregon, and there is talk of eventually opening things up again, contact tracing is front and center. It's all an attempt to keep the virus from having a strong rebound.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said it’s a critical part of her plan. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee envisions a small army of tracers.

“Now we need to start to turn to a more individualized treatment and protection plan, where we use smart technologies and smart contact tracing and smart and robust testing so we can find when these viruses sprout up like a little weed. That we surround it very quickly with what you might think of as the fire brigade which gets around those and keeps those contained,” said Inslee.

Several organizations are trying to help with the "smart" contact tracing.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology envision a very advanced system, in which our smartphones would give us a warning if we had been around someone else carrying a smartphone who ended up sick from the virus.

In the meantime, Multnomah County is using the simple phone call. The county receives automated reports of positive tests for the virus, and then a team begins calling the sick person and anyone they’ve been around to spread the warning.

It helps that so many of us are staying home, basically stopping large crowds. But when restrictions ease, the virus could quickly flare up. Which is why leaders like Ferguson say fast access to testing is key.

“If things open up again, people who are working in the industry that’s opened or people might be out and about… It would be really important to have widespread available testing so that people can, if they’re symptomatic, they could go through like a drive-through testing and not potentially expose other people but have a quick way to have an answer,” she said.

Multnomah County is hiring additional workers to help with the contact tracing, and has another 80 graduate students ready to volunteer and help with the caseload if a large outbreak occurs.

RELATED: Gov. Brown unveils framework for easing COVID-19 restrictions in Oregon

RELATED: 'Unknowable' if Washington's stay-home order will end May 4, says Gov. Inslee