Fresno Co.’s coronavirus spike pushes contact tracing to its limit

Where tracing occurs, county public health officials are struggling to connect with individuals via the telephone. The result is missed contacts.
A view of a Hudson River Park with a huge crowd of people exercising despite orders by the government to stay home and practice "social distancing" amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on March 26, 2020 in New York City (Photo by John Nacion/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The surge of positive COVID-19 cases in Fresno County over the last few weeks is stretching the county’s contact tracing team to its limits. 

Since July 1, the number of positive coronavirus cases in the county has increased from about 5,000 to over 11,000, as of numbers last updated from the California Department of Public Health Tuesday. 


With that influx, Fresno County Interim Health Officer Dr. Rais Vohra said the county is currently at capacity with the contact tracing program, meaning the county is struggling to keep up with every positive case. 

“When I say that we’re at capacity, it’s really just a numbers game,” Vohra said. “Whenever we have an average of 300 new cases a day, which is sort of what our experience has been, it’s really hard to keep up. It’s really hard to make all those phone calls to get in touch with people.” 

Currently the county has 100 contact tracers, and Vohra feels confident the health department can double that number through hiring new contact tracers and partnering with the City of Fresno and various community-based organizations. 

The lack of contact tracers to meet the demand, combined with the fact that some individuals who test positive for coronavirus simply do not answer the phone calls from the county to initiate contact tracing, has the county currently reaching out to 50 to 75 percent of COVID-positive individuals, Vohra said. 

Another problematic issue for the county is the turnaround time on test results, leaving the county playing catch up with index patients – individuals who have tested positive for coronavirus and have not yet talked with the county. 

“Whenever we call people that are index patients, they say, ‘Thanks a lot for calling. I was swabbed eight days ago.’ Unfortunately, that’s just where we are with testing,” Vohra said. “Just the turnaround time with the test takes so long that we may not find out about who’s positive for many many days after they got swabbed. In those eight days they could have gone a lot of places. The number of contacts is really large at that point.” 

With the county at capacity with contact tracing, what can people do to help? Vohra says to wear a mask, which eliminates the possibility of any interactions being considered a close contact and simplifies the process. 

“You should just in your mind have a mental check of, ‘OK, I’m in this space right now. Hypothetically, who are the close contacts that I’m having right now? Are these people going to be somebody that I can follow up with later?’ And that’s where every time you go to a gathering, every time you step outside your home, just be mindful of that,” Vohra said. 

“Whenever you don’t wear a mask, whenever you’re within six feet of somebody else, whenever you’re sharing air space with other people, you may end up having a coronavirus relationship that you didn’t plan to have… That’s why whenever you have a mask, it just makes it much easier because none of the people that you interact with are then considered close contacts.” 

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