California Contact Tracing Army Defeated During Holiday Surge, Audit Reveals

The influx of Covid-19 cases last winter overwhelmed counties, according to an audit that blasts the state for lack of training and backup.

Screenshot of California Gov. Gavin Newsom receiving his Covid vaccination on April 1, 2021. Because he received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, only one dose is necessary.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Despite heaps of federal aid and reassurances from state officials, a new audit released Thursday paints California’s highly touted “contact tracing army” as thoroughly outmatched when the state needed it most.

As coronavirus infections and deaths peaked this past January, State Auditor Elaine Howle says there were just 12,100 contact tracers available — well short of the goal of at least 31,000 public health officials set during the early stages of the pandemic. The overworked, diminutive group of tracers spread out among the state’s 58 counties was only able to interview 40% of the over 830,000 statewide cases in January.   

Howle pins the counties’ struggles to a variety of factors, including the state underestimating just how sharp the peak of new cases would be, lack of training and an underwhelming supplemental pool of state tracers.

“Data show that this total workforce was inadequate to meet the sharp, year-end increase in Covid-19 cases,” the report states. “Moreover, the Department of Public Health has not reached its goal of 10,000 for the pool of reassigned state employees.”

Contact tracing involves finding and contacting anyone who was exposed to someone diagnosed with Covid-19. Experts and state leaders considered it a vital tool in containing the spread, particularly in 2020 when vaccines were still in the research phase.

Early in the pandemic, Governor Gavin Newsom on multiple occasions hyped ongoing efforts to build an army of tracers by reassigning state employees and courting volunteers. He said California was ahead of the curve when it came to contact tracing, noting its prior experiences fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic and more recently with Ebola. The idea was to supply counties with a pool of well-trained tracers on an on-call basis.  

But according to Howle, only 2,200 state employees were reassigned to counties during the holiday spike. As a result, tracers were only able to identify at least one additional contact in 16% of the cases reported last January.

Making matters worse, the over 50,000 new daily cases routinely registered during the surge easily topped early predictions. By January, most counties exceeded their contact tracing capabilities, with 15 acknowledging they could no longer investigate every new case.

“The sheer number of cases has overwhelmed local health jurisdictions’ contact tracing efforts,” Howle wrote in the audit.

In response, State Public Health Officer Tomas Aragon said the department will have a new projection plan by May 15 and new hiring/training framework by June 15.

The audit also rips the department for failing to keep tabs on the initial $470 million it received from the federal government to fight the pandemic.

To boost early testing and tracing efforts, the department doled out $286 million to counties with the assumption they would respond with spending plans by August 2020. However, Howle says the department was slow to collect the counties’ updates and reporting gaps have led to at least $40 million going “untracked” as of February.  

“The department must ensure that it is establishing productive lines of communication and that it is prepared to provide the jurisdictions with constructive feedback and guidance as the funding program continues,” Howle said.

The update to the Legislature comes as the state crosses a pandemic milestone — anyone over the age of 50 is now eligible to be vaccinated.

Newsom marked the occasion by receiving the vaccine in front of cameras at a Los Angeles shopping mall, while Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis took her shot in San Francisco.

With over 18 million doses administered — 6 million ahead of any state — over 31% of California’s population is at least partially vaccinated.

Though the state will lift all eligibility requirements on April 15, Newsom, 53, urged patience and said it will likely take a couple of months until there is enough supply for all 40 million residents.

“Now is not the time to spike the ball, now is not the time to announce mission accomplished,” Newsom said.

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