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UCLA, UCSF, CDPH collaborate to train coronavirus contact tracers

UCLA, partnered with UCSF and CADPH, are training contact tracers to combat the spread of COVID-19. Contact tracing is important as it helps stop people who have come in contact with COVID-19, spread the infection further by advising self isolation and testing. The trainees in the program are mostly civil servants who are not able to continue working due to the pandemic.
(Kanishka Mehra/Assistant Photo editor)

By April Peng

May 19, 2020 7:08 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated LA County's initial contact tracer training cohort began last week. In fact, it began May 6.

UCLA is partnering with the University of California, San Francisco, and the California Department of Public Health to train contact tracers to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and UCLA Extension are hosting a program called COVID-19 Virtual Training Academy, which aims to train 10,000 to 20,000 contact tracers statewide, beginning with 1000 individuals per week in Los Angeles.

Contact tracing aims to break the chain of infection by preemptively identifying and isolating those who have come into contact with a COVID-19 patient, in order to prevent them from potentially infecting others.

LA County’s initial training cohort, which began May 6, consisted of roughly 550 trainees, who were civil servants with viable qualifications, such as language abilities and recent background checks. LA’s second cohort’s training began Monday.

When a patient tests positive for COVID-19, a case investigator from the response team will reach out to the individual to identify who they have been in contact with since their infection, said Michael Reid, an assistant professor at the UCSF Institute for Global Health Diplomacy and Delivery.

The contact tracers will then follow up with the identified contacts to check if they have developed symptoms, and advise them to get tested and self-isolate for 14 days, said Reid.

Contact tracing is particularly important in preventing infections as California starts to relax restrictions, said Michael Prelip, a professor from the Department of Community Health Sciences at UCLA FSPH and co-leader of UCLA’s response team.

“If we do have a good system of testing, (tracing) and investigation, tracing it should make it easier to reduce some of the restrictions that are in place,” said Prelip.

It is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 contact tracers are needed across the U.S. to have an impact on the spread of the coronavirus, said Reid.

On May 4th, California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed training up to 20,000 case investigators and contract tracers in the state of California through this program.

It’s crucial to identify all individuals infected by COVID-19 and their close contacts since a significant amount of transmissions occur before symptoms show up, Reid said.

“(Contact tracing) is a basic principle of infectious disease control. (What’s challenging) about COVID-19 is the scale of the responses that’s needed,” Reid said. “People have so many contacts, you need to mobilize a large workforce of people in order to respond effectively.”

The trainees, who are chosen by the department of public health, are mainly civil servants who have been put out of work by the pandemic, Prelip said.

The training program takes a total of 20 hours, 12 of which are spent in live webinars covering COVID-19 epidemiology and the logistics of contact tracing, Reid said. Trainees also learn mandatory health insurance portability and accountability rules, confidentiality, communication skills, health coaching and motivational interviewing.

In the San Francisco contact tracer training demo, Susan Philips, an infectious disease specialist at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said that in order to encourage cooperation, the Department of Public Health will provide support to those in need, such as food or alternate housing arrangements.

“Part of our effort today is also to make sure that people understand what we’re doing and when we call they understand the purpose for it,” Philip said.

Every call is a different person with a different story and different challenges, Reid said. Some people need to work and cannot afford to quarantine, while others may already be heavily symptomatic and require instant medical attention.

Contact tracers are specifically instructed to not ask for immigration status in order to encourage maximum cooperation, Philip said.

“Immigration status has no bearing on the type of this work, and it has no bearing on the information we collect,” Philip said. “So people should not be concerned that that might be a barrier to working with us on this.”

In the training demo, Reid added that contact tracers are instructed to not release names of the infected contacts or the dates of interaction.

“The way that the prompt works is we ask are you aware of coming into contact with … an individual suffering from COVID-19?” Reid said. “Sometimes they’ll say yes, it was my mom or my sister but we don’t volunteer the name of the individual even if they ask us for that information.”

This program requires collaboration of the public with the Department of Public Health in order to protect the community, Philip said.

“We really do want to emphasize that we want to work with the community, we want the community to work with us,” Philip said.

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April Peng
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