As locals continue to stave off the coronavirus with Lysol, facemasks, hand sanitizer and limited access to the world outside their homes, County Health officials are utilizing their own weapon, contact tracers.

In anticipation of the state reopening from coronavirus closures, officials are poised to handle what could be a second wave of infections.

Sacramento County Health Services Director Peter Beilenson spoke with The Sacramento OBSERVER recently about contact tracing, the process by which those who test positive for the virus are contacted, informed of quarantine mandates and are asked questions about who they’ve come into contact with and to whom they may have passed the virus.

The County, Dr. Beilenson said, is looking to hire 225 more contract tracers to handle cases.

“So far, contract tracing has gone very, very smoothly because we’ve had so few cases reported each day,” Dr. Beilenson said.

“We’re down to between five and eight cases reported per day,” he continued. “We have about 30 contract tracers, so clearly we don’t need all of them at this point, however, we want to be prepared should the surge come.”

The surge is expected now that Gov. Gavin Newsom has cleared Sacramento County to lift the ban on things such as sit-down restaurants, retail stores and outdoor gatherings.

Sacramento County may also see an increase in positives as more testing centers open throughout the city. New neighborhood testing sites opened earlier this month at the St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Oak Park, the Robertson Community Center and the La Familia Maple Community Center.
The contact tracing job requires a credential that can be obtained after 20 hours of training. Dr. Beilenson says the training is 12 hours of instruction and eight hours of job shadowing.

The Sierra Health Foundation had hoped to fill some of the spots with people familiar with the Black community — more specifically, Black people. President and CEO Chet Hewitt said a proposal he presented to the County was rejected in favor of a plan that will utilize existing state and County employees who have been furloughed due to COVID-19 and need work.

“Our plan was much more community focused with the intent of using some community folks for that training corps. We think it’s a good idea to use State and County employees, but we also know for many communities, particular communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted, we do have some community concerns about what the take-up rate is going to be when you send folks who are not of the community and trusted by community into communities to ask some pretty intrusive questions,” Hewitt said. A plan to involve the Los Rios Community College District for the credential training was also nixed.

“County health administrators and city officials did reach out to us to explore partnering with Los Rios on a contact tracing credential program and we expressed our openness to the idea. However, members of our team told me (Tuesday) morning that the County seems to have another plan in place and won’t need Los Rios’ support after all,” shared the community college district’s Associate Vice Chancellor of Strategy and Communications, Gabe Ross.

“Naturally, if that changes we will again be open to supporting this effort however we can,” Ross continued.

Gov. Newsom announced the launch of California Connected, the state’s contact tracing and public awareness program, on May 21. State and County health departments will rely on UCLA and UCSF for an online training academy that will “develop a culturally competent and skilled contact tracing workforce.”

Training started earlier this month and will continue on an ongoing basis.
“We’re not against the plan that’s coming out,” Hewitt said. “We think it can be supplemented with community navigators and communication strategy that would make the work of folks who are contact tracers more effective.”
Hewitt says the line of communication isn’t closed.

“We’re going to still stay engaged in conversation. We’re going to monitor the rollout of what’s happening and we’re going to offer up constructive feedback for how to improve it,” he said.

“We take that position not out of a sense of acrimony or anger with what’s being proposed. This is about illness and potentially death, so we want the program to be effective,” he added.

By Genoa Barrow