EL CENTRO – More hands are expected soon in helping county public health officials conduct some of detective work necessary to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic.
Contact tracing is the process whereby public health staff try to map out points of contact for persons infected with the novel coronavirus. It’s an endeavor that can involve many calls and interviews, and in normal times (that is, pre-COVID-19) at the Imperial County Public Health Department, it’s typically handled by a staff of four epidemiologists.
But these are not normal times. Speaking at press teleconference Monday, county Public Health Officer Dr. Stephen Munday said since the start of the pandemic, the Imperial County Public Health Department has trained and repurposed nursing and administrative staff to assist with the process. He estimated between 15 and 30 staff have been enlisted for different aspects of the job
“Some of them are helping, for example, specifically with doing contact tracing,” he said. “Some of them are helping with doing things like delivering isolation orders. Some of them are doing things like getting the data entered because we have to get data into the state system.”
The National Association of County and City Health Officials has estimated a need for 30 professionals to conduct contact tracing per every 100,000 Americans.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has spoken recently of plans to “build an army” of contract tracers for California. On Monday, Imperial County’s public health officer indicated that army was nearly ready to deploy.
“I was on the phone with the state health officer several times yesterday, and she confirmed that the plan is for this program to be up and running by the end of this week,” Munday said. “And we certainly are on top of the list to get additional help.”
Munday said increased local testing has already exhausted the county’s COVID laboratory testing supplies for now, and that it is currently having to rely again on the public health lab in San Diego for results.
“The only disadvantage to that is, of course, we have to transport the specimens and wait for the results to come back … which can sometime affect things that we’re doing like making decisions with regard to discharging somebody from the hospital,” he said.
As of Monday evening, the Public Health Department had confirmed 564 COVID-19 cases in Imperial County. Of those, 286 patients had recovered, and 12 had died. A report in the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office call logs indicated a 54-year-old male COVID-19 patient at El Centro Regional Medical Center died at 6:15 a.m. Sunday, but that information was not reflected in the county’s dashboard update.
Zip codes with the highest number of cases were 92231 (Calexico) with 170, 92243/92244 (El Centro) with 147 and 92227 (Brawley) with 116.
Munday said the impression that Calexico has been hardest hit by the pandemic by virtue of the number of cases is a bit misleading. Looking at the numbers strictly on a proportional basis, Brawley turns out to have a bigger percentage of patients. Using an approximate population of 26,000, Brawley had about 446 positive cases per 100,000 persons, while Calexico (estimated population 40,000) had 425 per 100,000. El Centro, with an estimated population of 44,000, was at 334 cases per 100,000 persons Monday evening.
These numbers aren’t particularly telling, Munday observed, because of the small sample sizes. “The problem we have is that the actual number of cases is a relatively small number compared to larger jurisdictions, and because of that, it makes any kind of calculations somewhat unstable,” he said.
Asked if he believed the county had yet reached its peak in new cases, Munday expressed doubt. “I do not think that we can say we have yet,” he said. “We are clearly still on the upslope of the epidemiologic curve.”