Santa Clara County is calling for the public to help ramp up its COVID-19 contact-tracing program. The effort needs an estimated 1,000 volunteers and workers by July 27, public health staff said.
Contact tracing identifies and tests people who were exposed to someone with COVID-19 so they can be tested and quarantined.
The county has trained nearly 180 tracers, Public Health Department staff told the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Health and Hospital Committee on June 4.
But the plan is to scale up the number of tracers in the coming weeks to 1,000 — more than twice the size of the existing Public Health Department. The intensive case investigation and contact tracing would need to operate for at least a year, according to a staff report.
Contact tracing helps prevent a spike in coronavirus cases by stopping transmission of the virus. The county is currently experiencing 50 to 75 new cases per day. Each patient has an average of 40 people with whom they've been in contact who could potentially contract the virus and spread it, according to the public health department.
As the stay-at-home restrictions are rolled back, the department anticipates there will be more contacts related to each new COVID-19 case. Public health staff estimate it will need to reach up to 21,000 contacts each week during peaks of transmission, they said in a May 21 public statement.
"Effective response to COVID-19 takes all of us, working together, and volunteers are a key part of our contact tracing community outreach," County Executive Dr. Jeffrey Smith said in the May 21 statement.
Contact tracing capacity is also one of five key indicators monitored by Bay Area health officers, who are easing stay-at-home restrictions.
Community members who are interested in volunteering can complete an online survey to share their interest, skills and availability. The county is also seeking volunteers who speak languages other than English, particularly Spanish and Vietnamese.
The work can be done from home if volunteers have reliable internet service, access to a computer and a place to make private phone calls, county staff said.
The volunteers will work with Public Health Department staff. They will team up with county, city and local government workers who are being deployed as disaster service workers.
The county's testing task force, led by Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, has identified 301 county employees who can be reassigned. Staff has also asked the state for 500 of its workers to join the contact-tracing team, Evelyn Ho, a senior community health planner for Santa Clara County, told the Health and Hospital Committee at the June 4 meeting.
Contact tracers will be trained and deployed on a rolling basis. Staff has a goal to train 100 to 150 people each week, she said.
Contact tracers will interview people with the coronavirus; call potential contacts; enter and manage data; and identify resources such as food, housing, medical assistance and compensation for lost wages so that people will receive proper follow-up services and will comply with isolation and quarantine.
The volunteers receive training from the county and nonprofit organization Heluna Health regarding interviewing skills, contact tracing software, privacy obligations and other topics.
Desired skills and qualifications for contact tracing volunteers include:
• Ability to work remotely for at least 24 hours per week, and ideally full-time at 40 hours per week.
• Ability to work for a minimum of three months, and ideally six months or longer.
• Excellent customer service and interpersonal skills.
• Strong written and communication skills, with an attention to detail.
• Computer proficiency with ability to enter data into web-based systems.
• Ability to work remotely with reliable internet and a computer.
• Other language capabilities.
Dr. Sarah Rudman, the county's assistant public health officer, told the Health and Hospital Committee the privacy of those who are being contacted by the tracing teams will be protected, including their names. Their Social Security numbers and immigration status will not be revealed to anyone.
They also will be asked whether home is a safe place to be, she said.
"Contact tracing is a fundamental public health strategy that we use for many contagious diseases. In order to ease restrictions, we know that we need to be prepared to reach out to every case, ensure they are able to safely isolate, and prevent further transmission by notifying any person with whom they have been in close contact," she said in the May 21 statement.
Contact tracing has a long history in the United States, said Dr. George R. Rutherford, principal investigator of the University of California, San Francisco's contact tracing training program and state health officer under former Gov. Pete Wilson. The U.S. surgeon general first described such a program in 1937 to track syphilis cases in military troops. Contact tracing was expanded in the 1950s to follow respiratory pathogens in the 1950s, Rutherford told the committee. It was also used to track communicable diseases including measles and mumps. More recently, he has conducted tracing with Ebola virus, he said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.