SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Often unheralded or overlooked, Santa Barbara County Public Health's contact tracing team is racing against relentless coronavirus spread seven days a week.
The team includes roughly 50 contact tracers--a mix between new employees, reassigned County employees and others being provided by the state. A six-person "isolation & quarantine" team works alongside the contact tracers to safely transport those who test positive but are unable to safely isolate in their home.
Gatherings over the holiday season ignited a statewide surge that has made contact tracers' job even tougher.
"We were doing really well right before the holiday. The cases were low," said County Public Health nursing supervisor Nancy Silha, who manages the contact tracing and isolation and quarantine teams. "And then when this hit, it just manifested into a large amount of need for staffing... it just almost doubled the need for our contact tracers.
"It's been a tough road, but we've been able to meet the needs."
The team is adding more contact tracers, who train for about a week before making calls to the community.
The team of contact tracers works from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. with each person working an eight-hour shift. Each contact tracer aims to call at least eight positive cases a day.
The state uses a computer system that tracks those who test positive. The contact tracers go through the list of local confirmed cases and call the included phone numbers. During the current surge, it can take up to two or three days to contact all positive cases from a single day's results.
“We chip away at the queue all day long,” said Nathan Seaford, a lead contact tracer for Santa Barbara County. “I think that most of us find that our intention is really just to kind of connect to the people we call. And ask them how they’re doing. See what their symptoms are. And primarily educating them."
Seaford was in the process of making a career change when he became a contact tracer. He wanted to be able to use communication skills to protect the community.
He says the responses from the community are frequently pleasant and cooperative, though sometimes they can be resistant and angry.
“In December, I called a man and I didn’t even finish introducing myself before I was violently cursed out,” Seaford said. “We’re not enforcing. We’re not policing. We’re simply trying to help the community. And the people who resist, we just try to compel them to do the same thing.”
According to Seaford, interviewers work first to establish trust before advising those with a positive result how to safely isolate and, if necessary, how to get food and other resources while quarantining. Then the contact tracer asks about any close contacts the person may have had.
“Usually the contacts are within the family, and so we’re able to reach them very quickly,” Silha said. “And if they don’t want to divulge who their contacts are, what we do is at least give them instructions to please notify them. Give them these instructions on how to quarantine.”
Interpreters will join calls where the contact tracer does not speak the same language as the person with a positive test. Many who receive calls only speak Spanish or Mixteco.
Even with case numbers skyrocketing this winter, Silha and Seaford believe they have been able to prevent outbreaks and help the community.
“In our role, we’ve done pretty well because the community cares,” Silha said.
“It’s inevitable with a surge on top of a surge like we’re dealing with right now, that some people slip through our grip,” Seaford said. “But I’m confident we’re gonna get on top of it.”