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Contact Tracing Program Called Into Question After Delays

YOLO COUNTY (CBS13) -- CBS13 has learned of multiple people who have tested positive for Covid-19 and didn't receive calls or texts from contact tracers for weeks.

This has begged two questions: Are people unknowingly exposing others and is contact tracing necessary?

A person will test positive for Covid-19 and not receive a call or text from contact tracers until after they've already tested negative, which means anyone they've seen in person in the meantime has already potentially been infected.

"If contact tracing is not occurring in a timely manner, that is not going to be helpful at all," said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of medicine and public health at USC.

Dr. Klausner says, with the prevalent Covid-19 omicron variant, the program holds little value.

"Omicron has a shorter incubation period.," he said. "To effectively control omicron through contact tracing, calls would have to be made within 24-48 hours of someone testing positive."

And that's not possible. Because of high demand for testing, local labs are backed up and positive results are taking several days to reach the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) which is in charge of contact tracing notifications.

"Last week in yolo county we had the most positive tests we've ever had," said John Fout, a spokesperson for Yolo County.

Yolo County saw a record-breaking 238 cases per 100,000 people.

"When you have that many tests, you're going to have testing delays," Fout said.

Delayed contact tracing means a potential for more Covid-19 infections.

"There are a couple backups to the state system. The state system is sort of a fail safe. The other systems are schools in particular," Fout said. "If they have a positive contact, they will let people know, also workplaces as well. When there's a positive they let everybody in the office know."

So then what's the purpose contact tracing? According to the job search website Indeed, the average salary for contact tracers is $27.83 per hour.

Dr. Klausner says the money spent may no longer be worth it.

"The contact tracing program should be reimagined," Dr. Klausner said. "Staff could go out to motivate people to get vaccinated. They could also be repurposed to case management."

This would mean focusing on contacting at-risk populations only and connecting them with medical care.

CBS13 did reach out to the CDPH to ask about delays in its system and if they are considering a new role for contact tracers. We have not heard back.

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