Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, warned Tuesday that the country cannot relax social distancing orders until the government is effectively tracking everyone a coronavirus patient came into contact with. San Francisco officials announced Wednesday that they’re getting a head start on that.
The city’s new contact tracing program establishes a system for identifying everyone an infected patient interacted with. Currently in its testing phase, officials say, the program will entail interviewing every newly infected patient in the city to establish the network of people they may have infected and then informing those people they could be possible carriers ― all without revealing anyone’s identity.
Mayor London Breed said the process will be key to controlling the outbreak once she loosens some of the city’s social distancing orders.
“We are committed to doing everything we can to slow the spread of COVID-19 in San Francisco,” she said in a statement. “At the same time, we need to look ahead and plan for how we will eventually go about easing the Stay Home Order while continuing to protect public health. When the time comes to make changes to the Order, we need this contact tracing program in place so that we’re equipped to respond to new cases and keep the virus from spreading out of control.”
The program is being conducted in partnership with software company DIMAGI, which has developed technology to streamline the system of contacting people, and the University of California, San Francisco, which has so far trained more than 50 people on how to contact the individuals who may be infected.
“This collaboration serves as a powerful example of what we can achieve when we bring together the best minds across our public health system, with the City, academic medical centers and community partners,” Dr. Sam Hawgood, chancellor of UCSF, said in a statement.
Once a potentially infected person is contacted, they’ll be able to text updates about their symptoms to the outreach workers managing their case for the next 14 days.
The system could be especially helpful in identifying asymptomatic carriers who may not otherwise be aware of their COVID-19 status. Fauci guessed Tuesday that at least 25% of those infected do not show any signs of illness.
Effective contact tracing is among the six benchmarks for ending shelter-in-place orders that California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) enumerated at a press briefing Tuesday.
“The most important framework is our capacity to expand our testing, to appropriately address the tracing and tracking of individuals … using technology and using a workforce that needs to be trained in an infrastructure that needs to be in place in order to begin the process to transition,” he said.
Authorities in other countries have already deployed aggressive contact tracing. Health experts hailed South Korea for keeping its death tolls relatively low by testing large swaths of the population and using people’s credit card transactions, smartphone data and security-camera footage to trace their footsteps for them.
But in the U.S., where there are stricter privacy laws in effect, the Big Brother approach is a harder pill to swallow.