Central Coast health officials face challenges as need for COVID-19 contact tracing increases

Posted at 12:21 PM, Jul 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-10 15:44:46-04

Health experts say contact tracing is an important piece to slowing and defeating the spread of COVID-19, but health officials continue to face hurdles in successfully tracking case spread. The work of these "disease detectives" is to locate people exposed to an infectious disease and plot the chain of infection back to the source, but that task is proving to be more difficult with a rise in cases.

Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged in April the state would hire 10,000 tracers by the summer. In San Luis Obispo County, health officials have nine currently working to trace the increasing number of cases. Dr. Penny Borenstein said in a Wednesday press conference that five more were on the way to help.

That number is a far cry short of Santa Barbara County. Jackie Ruiz, public information officer for the county's public health department, said the county has 68 contact tracers with 30 more incoming. Santa Barbara County has 1.5 times the population of San Luis Obispo County, but 7.5 times more tracers.

Neither health department provided a sit down interview for the story to fully explain the struggles of contact tracing among each location. San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department answered questions on the topic during Wednesday's briefing.

Both health departments avoid specifically naming where confirmed COVID-19 cases have originated. Several businesses have been affected by positive cases among employees, but the departments have not identified them. Chumash Resort and Casino self-identified cases among staff, stating they were isolated and not among visitors. Employees of other local businesses have reported cases throughout the Central Coast.

Borenstein said it is the public health department's goal to keep the privacy of those they contact safe. Employers are not notified if an employee has tested positive, but rather that the employee needs to isolate and not return to work for the time being. Confirmed cases have come from a wide variety of areas, Borenstein said.

"At this point in time, there are so many different locations that people walking in and out of businesses or maybe having a meal at a restaurant that might have been affected doesn't really put that larger population who may have walked through a department store at any greater risk than they have in their routine life," she said.

If a larger outbreak were to be identified, the public health department would inform the community. For example, health officials in Spokane, Washington said 24 people who tested positive had a direct link to a local restaurant. Of the cases, only one was an employee. It was confirmed through contact tracing.

"Contact tracing is critical to learning about the spread of COVID-19 in our local communities," Ruiz sent in a statement to KSBY. "As a result of contact tracing, we know that approximately 57% of cases have contracted COVID-19 from someone they know (family, friend, coworker) and 42% acquired it in the community. 1% of cases acquired it while traveling."

Ruiz said the expectation is that the health department's team will contact a new case within three working days of receiving a positive lab result. Due to delayed receipt of lab reports via the CDPH reporting database, it takes contact tracers approximately 2.4 days after a case is received to complete case investigation and contact tracing. The county's public health director Dr. Van Do-Reynoso said this week the average positive case between five and 10 contacts that "need to be investigated, traced and isolated in order to break the disease transmission chain.”

The act of contact tracing is facing more challenges. California's Office of Emergency Services warned this week of phone scams of people posing as contact tracers, asking for money. Contact tracing doesn’t require your bank account or credit card number or your social security number. Immigration status doesn’t matter for contact tracing, so real tracers won’t ask. And don't click any email and text link claiming to have information about tracing.

On Wednesday, San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department also said testing is becoming a concern. Now the department is asking those who do not need a test to avoid scheduling one to reduce the strain on the system. Currently the earliest date for scheduling a test is roughly a week out. Residents have reported also waiting up to a week to receive results. That puts tracers behind on tracking potential exposure and origin.

California is seeing a massive rise in cases. It is one of several states experiencing a resurgence of COVID-19. Florida contact tracers are struggling to keep up. According to Gov. Ron DeSantis, they are not getting a lot of support from potential carriers.

"Another problem that you've seen is, particularly the younger folks, aren't cooperating with contact tracers," he said. Health officials across the south have said contact tracing has become virtually impossible with the explosion of cases.

Newsom is expected to roll out new testing guidelines in the coming days for the state. Health officials continue to urge the public to wear a mask, practice social distancing, and to wash their hands.