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Sonoma County looks to hire more contact tracers as it records uptick of new coronavirus cases

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As Sonoma County moves closer to reopening more of its economy, public health officials are moving quickly to bolster the corps of workers who track the virus’s spread through the community while the number of new cases continues to rise.

Interactions with people known to have COVID-19, county officials said, are thought to be responsible for most of the county’s recent cases, a tally which grew by 96 between May 14 and Wednesday, the highest seven-day increase in cases since COVID-19 was first detected in the county on March 4. By comparison, the county took about a month to record its first 96 cases, though testing was far more limited during that period.

But Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, said the county needs more data to understand just how many of these new active cases can be traced back to known COVID-19 patients — and how many contracted it from being out and about in the community. To track the growing number of cases, the county is seeking to hire more workers to interview people who test positive and reach out to others they may have had contact with, work that is seen as pivotal to stemming local circulation of the contagion.

“We are seeing more and more cases of someone in the community with no contacts having COVID,” Mase said Wednesday, “and that probably is secondary to the increased testing, and may also be from somebody being out and about. It’s kind of hard to parse out.”

Increasing desire to reopen the economy has not made the virus any less contagious Mase said. She called it “extremely transmissible,” particularly within households.

“I’ve always said we will see more cases as we start opening the county in different sectors, and that’s what we’re seeing,” Mase said.

As of Wednesday, the county has recorded a total of 433 cases of COVID-19. The county reported 22  new cases Wednesday, tied for the highest daily confirmed increase since the start of the pandemic. Of the total number of cases, 225 are active and 204 have recovered, the first time the county has had more active cases than recoveries since May 5. Four people have died.

“The majority of the cases are still happening with contacts,” said Mase, referring to instances where people have been infected through clear interactions with coronavirus carriers and distinguished from “community spread” cases, where the precise vector of transmission is not as certain or is unknown. “However, we have lots of contacts that are being tested.”

The county plans to hire 40 to 50 college students to perform contact tracing as part of its ramp-up toward reopening more types of businesses, according to a county spokesman. The work does not require any medical background, and the county also expects to receive some resources from the state to help, Mase added.

Sonoma County needs to have at least 75 contact tracers to meet a state benchmark for need and currently has 75 to 80 contact tracers, according to a county spokesman.

The county’s plan is to have 150 trained contact tracing staff by June 15 and 230 by July 15, which would exceed a state recommendation to have three times the minimum benchmark.

The county currently provides data about sources of local coronavirus cases, but only as a snapshot in time — about 62% of current cases have been traced back to close contact, with another 19% coming from community spread and the rest either from travel or pending investigation.

State officials will want to know if the percentage of cases from community spread hits 30%, a mark at which the county may consider tightening some restrictions.

As the county gathers more data, it will be able to provide more information about how knowledge of COVID-19 case sources has changed over time, Mase said.

With the county about to reopen more of the local economy as soon as Friday, Mase noted that the county will continue to operate pop-up testing sites throughout the region. She said this testing will focus on the segments of the community that are at higher risk for the coronavirus — including the Latino population, which Mase acknowledged has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Widely available testing is part of the state’s rubric for allowing individual counties to advance into greater stages of economic openness.

“Testing as many people as possible is important,” Mase said, “because it does increase our understanding of transmission of the virus, and when we find positives, it lets us quickly contact those who are positive to get them isolated,” as well as tracing and testing their contacts.

The county Wednesday also announced changes to its isolation and quarantine orders, including extending the isolation period from one week to 10 days to align with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This new advisory also includes a request from Mase that health care providers inform patients of the county’s coronavirus-related facilities at Sonoma State University and expands the definition of contacts to include “any person within 6 feet of the infected person for 15 minutes or longer” — a tweak apparently targeted at workplace encounters with COVID-19 patients.

Mase said the changes were not related to any feedback the county received from the state as it revised its application to continue reopening the economy.

A revised public health order is expected to allow restaurants and wineries to open for outdoor seating.

Mase did not elaborate on what changes the county might have made more broadly due to that feedback.

Mase has said the county could receive approval to move forward with newly relaxed rules before an expected health order update at the end of the week.

The county did not provide any updates to that timeline Wednesday.

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