City health officials are training volunteers to interview those who test positive for coronavirus and those with whom they have come into contact. (Photos by Tyrone Jue/Courtesy SFDPH)

SF builds contact tracing team to notify people of exposure to coronavirus

Ability to track contacts vital to containing outbreaks as city works toward reopening

San Francisco is building up a team of contact tracers to alert those who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus, as part of efforts to reduce the spread of the respiratory illness.

Just last month, The City’s Health Officer Tomas Aragon lamented that a lack of investment in public health has limited the ability to conduct contact tracing investigations.

“We don’t have enough to do syphilis contact investigation,” Aragon said at the time. “We are down to the bare bones of public health infrastructure.”

But a contact investigation staff is now being built up in San Francisco and is considered essential to containing possible outbreaks when restrictions related to the current stay-at-home order are relaxed.

The City has partnered with UCSF and tech company Dimagi, which builds data tracking apps, to launch a new contact tracing program.

Those who test positive for the disease will undergo interviews by trained outreach workers to determine who they had contact with in recent days. The outreach workers will then contact those people and their health will be monitored through daily text messages or phone calls for 14 days. They can also self-report symptoms by text to alert health officials.

City officials emphasized that the conversations with contact tracers are voluntary and information kept confidential.

As many as 50 people have been trained to do the outreach work to date, including librarians, Department of Public Works staff, City Attorney staff, and UCSF medical students. The number of those trained is expected to grow to a total of 150 within two weeks. The hope is to ultimately expand the program throughout the region and have thousands trained.

The effort was officially announced Wednesday by Mayor London Breed and Dr. Grant Colfax, head of the Department of Public Health.

Asked last week by the San Francisco Examiner if The City was doing contact investigation for every confirmed coronavirus case, Colfax said that their ability to “do all of the contact tracing for every case has simply been exceeded.”

He said that contact tracing was focused “on the most vulnerable communities,” but that there were plans underway to “have a robust number of contact investigators on board.”

Colfax explained that if The City can successfully mitigate the broad community spread of the virus, it will then move to the next phase of containment by focusing on outbreaks. He likened the current community spread to a fire and the smaller outbreaks to sparks.

“Our goal is to have a robust team of disease control investigators who can immediately respond to those sparks so we do not return to a situation where we have widespread community transmission,” Colfax said.

Breed said Wednesday that contact tracing is necessary to have in place before The City can relax the current health order restrictions to ensure physical social distancing.

“When the time comes to make changes to the Order, we need this contact tracing program in place so that we’re equipped to respond to new cases and keep the virus from spreading out of control,” Breed said in a statement.

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