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Did someone with COVID-19 infect you? California is short on contact tracers to find out

Sophia Bollag, Tony Bizjak and Tim Sheehan, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California communities are scrambling to track down people exposed to the coronavirus after the state let many accelerate reopening without meeting minimum standards for contact tracers, a review of county data shows.

The state initially told counties they must have at least 15 contact tracers for every 100,000 people before they could speed up their economic reopening.

Of the 55 counties that attested they could safely reopen, at least 17 wrote that they did not meet that contact tracing threshold when they submitted their attestation forms to the state, although many outlined plans to expand their staff.

When they submitted their forms in May, most of those counties said they could handle their coronavirus caseloads with their existing contact tracing staff. But as coronavirus cases rise rapidly across the state, some of those counties now say they don't have enough staff to call every person who tests positive for COVID-19 and their contacts within 24 hours, the standard recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration did not respond to questions about why the state allowed those counties to reopen more quickly without meeting the requirement.

Even some counties that did meet the state's staffing threshold at the outset have been overwhelmed. Fresno, for example, had enough staff when it filed its reopening documents in May. But the number of positive cases in the county has grown by an average of 280 a day over the past two weeks, outstripping capacity.

 

"We don't have enough personnel at this time," interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra said last week. "The numbers have just kind of grown by such degrees that it's really hard for us to keep up."

In some areas, tracers face challenges beyond limited capacity. In Yuba and Sutter counties, some people they call yell, hang up, or simply decline to participate. Sometimes tracers can't reach a contact at all. Infected people don't always remember who they were with or where they have been.

As a result, the counties are failing to get information on about 40% of cases.

"Our contact tracers are overwhelmed, not just by the number, but the emotional burdens," Yuba County spokeswoman Rachel Rosenbaum said. "Maybe it is fear combined with mistrust of government. It's tough, but we are working every day to try to push back on those misconceptions."

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