County to Boost Contact Tracing; Investigators ‘Overwhelmed' After Case Surge

Each coronavirus interview between a county case investigator and a sick person takes about two hours

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San Diego County hopes to double the size of its coronavirus contact tracing team in the coming weeks to try to keep up with surging COVID-19 cases.

“Our staff just couldn’t keep up,” explained San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten at a news conference on Monday.

At the start of the week, there were 522 workers in the county’s ‘Tracing Division,’ which is responsible for contacting people impacted by the coronavirus illness across San Diego.

The tracing team is primarily divided into two sectors: the case investigators who reach out to people confirmed to have the coronavirus; and the contact tracers reach out to people who may have come in contact with a sick person.

But there are fewer than 250 case investigators who make those crucial initial calls, and each call can take up to two hours to complete.

“Our case investigation system has been overwhelmed by the massive increase and very rapid increase in positive cases,” County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said Monday.

For the past two weeks, San Diego County has seen at least 385 new coronavirus cases every day, including a record high of 634 cases last Thursday according to the county’s coronavirus tracker.

This data is not a full representation of cases. Totals are based on patients' resident zip code, and are not a representation of where someone contracted COVID-19. Because not every single resident is tested regularly, officials with the County Health and Human Services Agency say the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the county is likely much higher than the reported total.

Over the past seven days, case investigators have initiated on average only 9% of cases, according to county data. The goal is to have that figure over 90%.

“Right now, we’re in a stage where contact tracing is not effective, and we need to get the numbers down before we can switch from physical distancing to contact tracing,” said UC San Diego epidemiologist Rebecca Fielding-Miller Ph.D.

The professor explained contact tracing is meant to be used as a containment measure once cases are down, not as an initial strategy to bring cases down.

Fielding-Miller said the county should still boost its contact tracing program, but as long as there are hundreds of cases every day, the task incredibly daunting.

“Right now with 500 cases a day, you can see that’s not feasible for contact tracing, we cannot trace down that many cases a day,” she added.

The county says nearly 100 additional contact tracers will be working by the end of the week, and the hope is to add another 200 shortly.

Fletcher said the good news is contact tracers have still managed to track down people who have been in close contact with infected San Diegans.

Over the past seven days, contact tracers have traced on average 90% of those who came into close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

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