Following a summertime surge and data reporting issues, California is looking to contain COVID-19 outbreaks through targeted contact tracing in hotspot areas.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Monday $81.8 million in philanthropic aid to bolster contact tracing and quarantine efforts. The bulk of the funding — a $63 million grant from Kaiser Permanente — will go to Oakland-based Public Health Institute to provide targeted, community-based contact tracing in areas hit hard by the virus.
Contact tracers interview people who have tested positive to find out the places they have visited and with whom they have been in contact, so they can inform those people of possible exposure. But in California, trust has been an issue.
The goal is to recruit contact tracers to work directly in their own communities, said Public Health Institute (PHI) President and CEO Mary Pittman.
“People who are from within a community and who know the community members are far more likely to get a response when they call and speak to people on the phone,” she said. “So that's our best effort.”
The organization has launched similar initiatives in Oregon and Washington. Pittman points to a contact tracing effort in Clark County, Washington, as an example of the strategy’s success.
“It was a cluster in a fruit packaging plant where people predominantly spoke Spanish,” Pittman explained. “We were able to clear over 100 monolingual Spanish-speaking employees with an 85% contact rate, which allowed them to safely return to work.”
The key to successful tracing?
“Reaching out to community-based organizations — to trusted people in the community — to explain what we were trying to do,” Pittman said. Doing so also allows them to explain the benefits of contact tracing and isolation as well as the privacy protections contact tracers ensure when asking questions, she said.
PHI is still working with the state to determine where to focus its efforts, but Pittman said there would be a focus on the Central Valley, which is currently considered one of the hardest-hit spots in the country.
The efforts will build on those Newsom announced last month to control outbreaks in farmworker and Latinx communities in eight Central Valley counties.
Newsom noted Monday when he announced the new funding that quarantining those who test positive or are exposed to the virus poses significant challenges for certain communities — for example, multiple families sharing the same house or farmworkers living in barrack-style housing.
“It is foundational in our efforts,” the governor said, “that we support people in times of need, particularly multi-generation families, particularly low-income families that simply don't have the support or capacity to isolate to quarantine.”
Pittman says her organization will work to connect those who need to quarantine away from their families with local organizations who can provide resources such as food or childcare.
Newsom announced an additional $18 million in donations to support isolation efforts.
Members of PHI support teams will also be based in health care clinics in order to get test results faster and begin immediately contact tracing when needed.
“By bringing the healthcare system together with the public health system — I always advocate for that partnership — we're able to see that we can connect the dots between where people get their care and the local health department,” Pittman said.
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