San Francisco’s ability to contact trace could soon reach breaking point

San Francisco's ability to track new COVID cases is being stressed and could reach a breaking point soon. There's a chance the county may not be able to keep up with the surge in cases.

San Francisco had been reaching about 80% of those who'd tested COVID positive. But, with the surge in cases, even with additional staff and new technology, they simply may not be able to keep up.

Public health experts say contact tracing, contacting people tested COVID positive and tracking down the people they'd come into contact with, is a critical part of battling the pandemic.

"It is an effective way, if we're doing it well and everyone is engaging in it, the public works with us on it, it allows us to stop the ongoing cycles of transmission," said Dr. Susan Philip from San Francisco's Department of Public Health.

Until recently San Francisco had been talking to about 80% of COVID patients to track down and notify their contacts that they may have been exposed. Those contact tracers are now handling three and a half times the number of cases than a month ago.

In the last week San Francisco's Department of Public Health added an additional 100 contact tracers to the 200 the county already had in place, and has adopted the state's mobile contact tracing platform. But, the surging number of COVID patients, and the increasing numbers of contacts means the team is struggling to keep up, and in danger of being overwhelmed.

"When the numbers get to be incredibly big, as you pointed out, and as each case says they have 20-25 contacts there is no way a force of even 300 people who are incredibly skilled is going to be able to keep up with that," said Dr. Philip.

But, public health experts say it's not too late to manage the flood of patients. They point to that new mobile platform, they say 40% of those they reach out to respond to the messages about isolating themselves and share data on who've they've come in contact with within 20 minutes of the first text message.

Those who work with contact tracers playing a critical role in combating coronavirus.

"One thing the public can do is limiting the number of close contacts that you have," said Dr. Philip. "Now is not the time to go into a large party and have 100 close contacts."

The increase in cases which those contact tracers are tracking down still doesn't including the expected surge of new COVID cases health experts are expecting will follow Thanksgiving holiday when many people traveled to visit family and friends.