Contact tracing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic: SLO Co. Public Health explains why it's important

Posted at 7:50 PM, Jun 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-28 00:09:28-04

After a rise in COVID-19 cases across the state and county, contact tracing has become a tool to help track the transmission of the coronavirus, according to San Luis Obispo County Public Health.

This comes after Governor Gavin Newsom has held multiple press conferences this week, outlining the new 'forecast' models for local leaders.

“It is one of the most powerful public health tools that we have for controlling infectious disease," said County Public Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein during a County Public Health briefing Wednesday. "We continue to be able to do case investigation and contact tracing for 100% of our cases.”

The county's ability to utilize a tool like this has been beneficial to keeping case numbers relatively low compared to other areas in the state, she says.

The process works through contract tracers who investigate cases in which individuals may have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Those who may be identified as being positive or who were in possible contact with a coronavirus-positive tested individual will remain strictly confidential, Dr. Borenstein says.

“Once we identify those individuals who are contacts, we are in communication with them, we tell the case who will be reaching out to those people completely privately," she said. "We never name who the source is."

The actual contact range of concern is quite specific.

“By close contact, I mean a period of a minimum of 15 minutes in direct relationship to the person, within a six-foot distance," Dr. Borenstein said.

This does not include walking or running past someone in a grocery store, unless they are actively coughing or sneezing on you.

While San Luis Obispo County Public Health does not require any specific contact tracing guidelines for reopening local businesses, many have already stepped up to be prepared.

Sky Nails in San Luis Obispo has waivers for patients to sign before their visit, agreeing not to hold the business accountable for any sort of predicament or situation while receiving service.

“I feel actually very comfortable, I want to work with the CDC," said nail tech Cindy Tran. "I follow all the rules, but this is more for the health of both the customer, the employees and myself.”

For those taking advantage of businesses reopening under County Health guidelines, they feel contact tracing could be beneficial.

"I would be very apprehensive about someone having been affected when I had been in that area, but I wouldn’t be afraid," Los Osos residnet Gari Cave said. "I would just go get tested myself.”

Other businesses like Stephen Ross Wine Cellar says because of the high demand and low seating capacity, they require reservations for customers.

“That is a good idea because we do get everybody’s phone number as part of the reservations so it would not be difficult to contact them," cellar owner Paula Dooley said. “I think it would be wise to ask them ahead of time if it's alright to use that phone number for SLO County Public Health contact.”

For those who do receive a call regarding contact tracing, the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department is asking individuals to comply with the request and provide as much information as they can regarding who they were in contact with, with the goal to identify where the virus could be spreading.

"Contact tracers are really there to help you with your household needs during a time of isolation or quarantine, to help you with clinical consultation or to get you to a doctor if you need more care, to get information that will help us as a community and to be a general resource," Dr. Borenstein said.

Contact tracers may read from a script, Borenstein says, so the call may sound rather formalized. The reason is to ensure no important questions are omitted.

Dr. Borenstein also warns the public to be aware of scam calls and that if the County Public Health Department does try to contact you, they will not ask for personal information, only who you may have been in contact with.

"If someone claims to be a contact tracer, is asking about your immigration status, is asking for your Social Security number, asking for any type of payment, you can be sure that you’re not hearing from your local public health department and you need to report that as a scam to law enforcement," she said.

San Luis Obispo County Public Health says for further reopening guidelines, businesses can visit