Inside the Headquarters of San Diego's Disease Detectives

NBC 7 Investigates gains access to contact tracers whose goal is to stop COVID-19 in its tracks.

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In a former conference room inside the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, armed with only a computer and a phone, sit dozens of workers whose sole job is to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

They are called “contact tracers” and their job is seen as vital to flattening the curve of the deadly COVID-19 virus. 

“The reason I am calling is because you have been in contact with a person that had coronavirus,” said Mariela Ron, one of 200 contact tracers now employed by the county of San Diego. 

Speaking in Spanish to the man on the other line, Ron asks a series of questions, including whether the man has any underlying conditions, whether he has experienced any symptoms indicative of the novel coronavirus, and for contact information for those closest to him. She then suggested that he quarantine himself for 14 days. If no symptoms arise, contact tracers such as Ron close the case.

The questions are important to try to slow, and hopefully stop, the spread of the virus in San Diego communities.

“These calls are very important because it helps bring awareness to how important it is to wash your hands, keep six feet away from others, and to wear protective gear like a mask,” said Ron in an interview with NBC 7 Investigates. “It helps protect the safety of the community of San Diego.”

Added Ron, “I think it’s just important to know that it’s a family. It’s somebody, a human being that is going through these difficult situations. So just make sure that when you are talking to them to try to sympathize because it could be you on that call.”

From Ebola Virus to Syphilis, to many other communicable diseases, contact tracing has been a vital tool in stopping a virus’ spread and raising public awareness. Coronavirus is no different. States and municipal governments, including San Diego County, are hiring thousands of people to fill the roles as contact tracers. Minus a vaccine for COVID-19, the job is an important one. 

Ernie Awa is in charge of San Diego’s team of disease detectives. 

“With COVID-19, we really had to develop this new position to really scale up our contact tracing efforts. And this is really a much needed role, as we see that it is very important, it is vital to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Added Awa, “The sooner we’re able to notify people of their exposure, and to quarantine at home, the better we are able to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

But it is a tireless and thankless job at times. 

In addition, the workload continues to grow, said Jeff Johnson, Chief Epidemiologist for San Diego County. 

“We are all feeling a little tired. We’ve been working at this for several months now,” Johnson told NBC 7.

“It is a once in a lifetime situation from a public health point of view,” said Johnson. “We’re optimistic that we’re going to slow the spread of the virus to the degree where it’s kind of suppressed at a low level until a vaccine is available for the majority of the population.”

Johnson and Awa’s team of contact tracers say the majority of people they speak to are family members of those who contracted the disease. They suspect that as stay-at-home orders are lifted, the calls needed to be made will only increase.            

But Johnson and Awa say increasing workload or not, their chief goal for the contact tracer team is to stop community spread from occurring and give time for a vaccine to become available. 

“We’re optimistic that we’re going to slow the spread of the virus,” said Johnson, “We need to do so, at least to the degree where it’s kept at a low level until a vaccine is available for the majority of the population.”
For more information from the county on what to expect if a contact tracer calls you, click here.

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