SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — In about one day, more than 1,000 people applied to become a coronavirus case tracer for the county. The temporary, full-time position was posted last week as San Diego County expects it will need more help to contact up to 1,200 people daily as it fulfills its “testing, tracing, treatment” strategy, also known as “T3.”
“This is an essential part of the containment of the spread of coronavirus. To have robust testing, to be able to rapidly identify positive cases and then have the ability to have individuals to go in and find their close contacts,” said Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.
The Centers for Disease Control defines a “close contact” as someone who was within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes at some point 48 hours before the onset of the illness.
Currently, the county has 135 tracers, up from 128 last week. They had performed 4,903 investigations as of Tuesday. Some of the new tracers may be existing county staff who will be retrained, but the county expects to fill the ranks with new hires at $19.50 an hour who will remain on the job for between six and nine months.
A posting for the new tracing positions listed “customer service experience” as a requirement. The county is especially interested in people with skillsets that can help them track down between two to 10 people for every positive case.
“We use what we’re calling our communicable disease investigators, so we’re interviewing and recruiting individuals that would fall in that classification,” explained Dr. Wilma Wooten, M.D., MPH, the county’s Public Health Officer.
Initially, tracers will focus on at-risk populations, such as low-income communities and senior living facilities. Privacy rules limit how much information tracers can provide those who potentially came in contact with someone who tested positive. They are not permitted to reveal the name of the person who tested positive and will encourage contacts to get tested and promote self-monitoring for 14 days. The goal of tracing is to catch cases early and limit potential exposure to others when someone is asymptomatic in the first days of the virus
The state is developing on an app that could assist tracers to track down potential contacts. Simultaneously, tech companies are working on an exposure notification system that could tell people after they’ve encountered someone who later tested positive. Both have potential privacy concerns, regulatory hurdles, and adaptation challenges that could slow their rollout. None are considered a replacement for tracers.
“As technology becomes greatly available it might increase our efficiency and our ability,” said Fletcher. “There may be things that are a bit more automated and might be a little bit easier to monitor.”