As coronavirus cases continue to surge locally and nationwide, health officials are asking people infected with the virus in Riverside County to be forthcoming with information that could prevent others from getting infected.
COVID-19 has infected 21,101 residents countywide and has led to the deaths of 506 people, according to Tuesday’s county public health data. When a person tests positive for the coronavirus, the county has nearly 300 contact tracers who reach out to them. The contact tracers are tasked with determining the source of the person’s infection, track who the infected person may have been in contact with and where they visited.
Health officials say contact tracing is a critical tool in curbing the spread of the coronavirus, but that flow of information isn’t always happening.
“Unfortunately, in many cases, the person who is contacted is not providing the information that is being sought,” Kim Saruwatari, director of Riverside County Public Health, said. “It is understandable that patients may be reluctant to discuss sensitive issues, but it is very important that this information is provided.”
Saruwatari said personal information collected by the county’s contact tracers is not shared with other government agencies or with those who are contacted by case investigators. Contact tracers use the same techniques used for years by Riverside County health officials while investigating other health issues, including tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases.
“We don’t share individual information and we don’t ding people for being honest,” said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer. “The only thing new about what we’re doing now is the scale of it. We know how to keep your information private and we ask only what we need to know.”
At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Kaiser voiced “great concern” about the nearly 500 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized in the county.
While residents are still being encouraged to wear face coverings, maintain social distancing and practice frequent hand washing, Kaiser said gatherings outside of a person’s household are contributing to the surge.
“We are trying as best as we can to get the message out that you should be sticking to your own household wherever possible,” Kaiser said. “It’s this mixing of families and everything together that we believe is a substantial driver of infections.”
The county’s positivity rate is rapidly growing and is at nearly 15.9%, almost double the state’s threshold of 8%. On Tuesday another 547 coronavirus cases were confirmed and 20 new deaths were reported.
Kaiser said when a person with COVID-19 answers the contact tracer’s questions, it helps to better understand where the virus is spreading.
“We also need to understand where our hotspots are so we can concentrate on those regions and sectors, and that can’t happen if we don’t find out what we need to,” he said.
Every week, an additional 60 contact tracers are added to the county’s cohort to help during the pandemic.