San Francisco's contact tracing program has proven to be an effective tool in thwarting COVID-19 infections — but this winter's surge could push the initiative to its limits as staff might struggle to contend with a rush of new cases.
Like mask-wearing and social distancing, contact tracing is one of our most effective ways of mitigating future COVID-19 surges in lieu of a vaccine rollout. (The latter, thankfully, is expected to begin by mid-December — with the Bay Area still being in shutdown when the rollout starts.) In fact: SF has successfully reached some 80 percent of people who've tested positive for the novel disease. However, because of the recent spike in coronavirus infections, the City's contact tracing program is inching closer to a "breaking point" and might become overwhelmed with new cases.
We are in the middle of a major surge as #COVID19 is spreading rapidly in San Francisco. Help reduce the spread by staying home, wearing a mask during essential outings, and avoiding in person gatherings with people from other households. #MaskTheSFup pic.twitter.com/xx2maBIOGR— San Francisco Department of Emergency Management😷 (@SF_emergency) December 2, 2020
As reported by KTVU, contact tracers are now handling “three and a half times” the number of cases than they were just a month ago. Even despite the SFDPH adding another 100 contact tracers to the City's already 200 employed ones — and San Francisco adopting a new mobile-data-assisted tracing platform — the program could become too strained in the coming weeks (or days).
"When the numbers get to be incredibly big, as [previously pointed out], and as each case says they have 20-25 contacts there is no way a force of even 300 people who are incredibly skilled is going to be able to keep up with that," said Dr. Susan Philip from San Francisco's Department of Public Health to the news outlet.
All things considered: Philip and other public health officials say it's not too late to make a noticeable impact in driving down the number of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 cases. And that requires people cutting down on the number of people they share space with — particularly during the next few weeks.
"One thing the public can do is limiting the number of close contacts that you have," said Philip. "Now is not the time to go into a large party and have 100 close contacts." (Any sort of large gathering or time spent with people outside your immediate circle or household is also now forbidden, per the regional stay-at-home order.)
It's worth mentioning as well that we've likely yet to see cases of COVID-19 contracted by traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday; the incubation time of the novel disease is somewhere between two and fourteen days — with hospitalizations usually occurring later on in the timeline for severe COVID-19 infections.
Wear a mask, only see people in your immediate circle... and try to talk some sense into any anti-vaxxers in your life. A quasi-normal spring and summer could well be right around the corner if we all do our part in safeguarding ourselves and others from coronavirus infections.
Image: Signs posted in Dolores Park in San Francisco warning people about best practices during the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Dolores Park is usually full of people but it's currently sitting empty. (Courtesy of Getty Images via DutcherAerials)