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Why Long Beach Isn't Doing Contact Tracing For All New COVID-19 Cases

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Bixby Knolls Towers in Long Beach is among the skilled nursing homes identified by the California Dept. of Health as having confirmed COVID-19 cases among both staff and residents. Megan Garvey / LAist
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To track the spread of a disease like COVID-19, typically public health investigators fan out like detectives, questioning family members, the hospitals and workplaces with a mission to piece together a list of people who could have been exposed to the virus.

This process, called contact tracing, is a critical element in containing the spread of the novel coronavirus. But the ability of California’s 61 county and city public health departments varies greatly as they struggle to keep pace with rising numbers of patients.

Long Beach, which has its own city health department, was initially tracking all COVID-19 cases. But then people kept getting sick, and most of the deaths are in long-term care facilities

As people sheltered in place, contact tracing didn’t have to be as extensive. Emily Holman, communicable disease controller for the city’s health department, said:

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“Now we’re to the point where we have more than 400 cases, and we’re really focusing on our healthcare worker cases, and our cases in our long-term care facilities.”

Tracing contacts of people in long-term care facilities is different than in the community at large. Instead of focusing on reconstructing a web of contacts, the aim is to rapidly identify and separate infected and potentially exposed people from healthy people. Speed is key, so if someone’s symptomatic, they’re treated as a case even with no test results.

“Every minute in those facilities can be crucial and could prevent an exposure,” Holman said.

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