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'We Never Give Out Names': Health Officials Vow COVID Contact Tracers Will Uphold Privacy

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) - County health officials say around 2,300 contact tracers have completed training in Los Angeles County to help track the spread of COVID-19, but they acknowledge distrust among many Angelenos about the effort.

Health director Barbara Ferrer announced the effort Wednesday along with another 64 deaths and 3,266 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the countywide total number of cases to 164,870.

Contact tracers can help people at risk get the resources needed to safely quarantine for 14 days, according to officials.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved the allocation of $1.2 billion in federal funding, $301 million will be used for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

So far, over 109,000 cases have been assigned for contact tracing. Of those, nearly 72,000 have completed the interview, according to the county's website.

Overall, the state of California has about 3,600 state workers to help counties with their contact tracing programs.

One of them is Mary Urtecho-Garcia, who is a contact tracer in Pasadena.

She normally works as a nutritionist but Pasadena has re-assigned some of its city employees, including librarians and fire department personnel, during the pandemic to gather vital data.

Urtecho-Garcia says figuring out who's infected is never meant to be punitive.

"We're trying to catch the people early enough so that they don't become a super spreader or spreader within their community or their family," she said.

pasadena contact tracing
Mary Urtecho-Garcia is a contact tracer in Pasadena. (credit: CBS)

Those involved with the effort have already undergone background checks.

"What we really want is to focus on people who have been vetted, who have shown they can ensure that patient confidentiality we're all beholden to, and also not talk about people's private information," said Dr. Mark Feaster with Pasadena Public Health.

And across the board, you'll only get a call if you've tested positive and your information will not be shared.

Ferrer said COVID status is always treated as a medical record, and many tracers themselves don't know identities of COVID positives.

The only information revealed to those contacted is that someone with whom they've been in contact has tested positive.

"We never ever give out names," she said.

But some in Sacramento says California has too many COVID-19 cases to trace each new infection.

"The level of transmission we're seeing across the state, even a very, very robust contact tracing program in every single county will have a hard time reaching out to every single case," said Dr. Mark Ghaly, California Health and Human Services Secretary.

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