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With Focus On Coronavirus, LA Lacks Contact Tracers For A TB Outbreak

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A doctor examines a patient's x-rays at a TB clinic. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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Los Angeles County’s top doctor is worried that the fight against the coronavirus could jeopardize decades of hard-won gains in the battle against tuberculosis.

Similar to the coronavirus, tuberculosis is spread through the air, and contact tracing is key to stopping its spread. That’s when health workers follow up with people who test positive and their contacts to help them quarantine or get health care.

“Before COVID-19 started, we had about 250 contact tracers, and these were sort of spread out across several of our programmatic areas, like tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases and other communicable diseases,” said Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, chief medical officer for L.A. County's Department of Public Health.

All of those contact tracers have been reassigned to COVID-19. Gunzenhauser said that will make it much harder to contain the spread if there is a tuberculosis outbreak.

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“We had gotten down to just about 500 [TB] cases a few years ago. But then in 2018 and 2019, the number of cases crept back up. We are concerned we're going to see an additional increase this year,” he said. “We're looking to figure out how we can provide adequate resources so that tuberculosis can remain under control.”

Gunzenhauser said about 10% of people infected with tuberculosis die from the disease.

In 2018, California had the third-highest rate of tuberculosis cases among the 50 states.

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