Taking a cue from South Korea as San Francisco looks ahead to easing stay-at-home orders, the city is launching a new, aggressive contact-tracing program for every new COVID-positive case in the city limits.
An outreach team will now inform all contacts of any person who tests positive for the virus without telling them who the COVID-positive person is, and then stay in touch with those contacts for 14 days to check on any possible symptoms and make sure they are self-isolating.
UCSF conducted a training for 50 people last weekend to become part of this contact-tracing team, as the Chronicle reports. The team includes city employees who are now taking on new responsibilities during the pandemic, including public health and City Attorney's Office staff, library staff, and UCSF students. (This is just one of multiple ways that librarians and other non-essential employees are being shifted into disaster-time roles.)
Mayor London Breed discussed the contact-tracing program during her Wednesday afternoon press briefing, along with announcing a new drive-through testing facility that is launching in SoMa. The facility, which is being opened in partnership with Google/Alphabet subsidiary Verily and One Medical, will prioritize testing for city employees and essential, frontline workers.
"We just want to test people more quickly... so that people can either quarantine or get back to work more quickly," Breed said. "Instead of waiting days or weeks to either get tested or get a response, our goal is to test them almost immediately and get the tests back as quickly as possible, because they are essential city workers."
"When I say these people are putting their lives on the line, that is not an understatement," Breed added.
As the Examiner reports, the new CityTestSF site at 600 Seventh Street will have the capacity to test 200 people per day when it opens on Friday. It will remain an appointment-only testing site, though people will able to request appointments by calling 311 — according to the mayor's remarks. And, per the Examiner, the site is expected to open soon for walk-up testing in the style of the Hayward testing site that opened several weeks ago.
Breed also further assured members of the local immigrant community that personal information and data from the city's contact-tracing and testing programs will never be shared with federal authorities. "We have to make sure people feel safe in revealing any information we're asking for," she said. "You don't have to be afraid if you are exhibiting symptoms to call 311 and get tested."
Governor Gavin Newsom, in a speech on Tuesday, discussed how "tracing and tracking" individuals with possible COVID exposure would be key to the incremental reopening of the state's economy. As the Harvard Business Review explained in a recent piece, it was digital contact-tracing that helped places like South Korea, Taiwan, and other democratic regions of East Asia to quickly contain outbreaks and keep severe-case and death numbers down as this pandemic began.
And it was "a collectivist spirit [that inspires] civic-minded embrace of and a more willing compliance with governments’ infection control" in these places — and this is something that privacy-minded Bay Area residents may be less compliant with.
As the HBR discusses, a couple of privacy-preserving apps have already been developed out of MIT for use in pandemic contact-tracing which will hopefully allay Western fears of privacy invasion. (San Francisco's program is being conducted with the help of Massachusetts-based company Dimagi, whose CommCare software is promised to "Track COVID-19 patients via robust mobile case management features and trace each cases's contacts during the contagion period.")
Part of China's success in containing the coronavirus — if their current data is to be believed — came with the help of harvesting data from the WeChat app. The government was able to leverage the vast amount of data the app had on the movements of the Chinese population, but this is something Americans would never accept if, say, Facebook were being used in the same way.
But, contact-tracing as will be happening here is not unlike what already occurs when people test positive for sexually transmitted diseases. Those infections, more often than not, are reported to local health departments and to the CDC, and those infected are generally compelled to contact people they've had recent sexual contact with, or local or state authorities will do it for them anonymously.
"We need to build a fast-moving, comprehensive system to track cases and support people to prevent further spread as much as possible, as we ultimately move out of shelter in place into a new phase of fighting the pandemic," said director of public health Dr. Grant Colfax in a statement.