CBS47 INVESTIGATES: Fresno County’s COVID-19 contact tracing

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FRESNO, Calif. (KGPE) — The Fresno County Department of Public Health released new information Friday that provides a better idea of where people who have had COVID-19 in Fresno County may have gotten it.

It’s data our investigative team has been asking the Department of Public Health to release for nearly two months now.

The online dashboard has been “under construction” for months, but 11 months into the pandemic, we are getting a glimpse at contact tracing data 11 months into the pandemic.

The new graph posted to the department’s website Friday sheds new light on where people in Fresno County are contracting COVID-19. 60% of people interviewed by contact tracers say they are contracting it from inside their own home.

The other sections of “community”, “work”, and “other” only create more questions:

  • What is contact tracing data telling us?
  • Are there hot spots in Fresno County?
  • Are there cases linked back to certain stores?
  • Or are there cases linked back to certain restaurants?

The health department’s short answer is contact tracing has been unreliable and unsuccessful.

When contact tracing begins, a case investigator calls a COVID-19 positive patient to ask questions such as “where do you think you got the coronavirus?”, “where have you been?”, and “who were you in close contact with?”

The information is then passed to contact tracers. Their job is to call individuals who may have been in close contact with the person who had COVID-19. Case investigators and contact tracers gather valuable information.

Investigative reporter Karah Rucker asked Dr. Rais Vohra, the interim Fresno County Health Officer, who is able to see the data and see what places cases are being tracked to. He said that they do not have that information.

We asked where data is and what is the data telling us about the spread within our community.

“That’s a different kind of reconstruction that frankly we haven’t been very successful doing that,” Dr. Vohra said. “We’re just not very good at that.”

Fresno County says contact tracers are able to reach 92% percent of people who test positive. But health officials say the data is inconclusive.

Other counties are able to compile their contact tracing data and have it readily available to the public.

Why do other counties have this data where we do not?

“We just have not put that out as a high priority for us,” said David Pomeville, Fresno County Health Director.

In contrast, Los Angeles county lists on their website the number of cases traced back to businesses such as Target, McDonald’s, and other retail stores and restaurants. Sonoma County is able to conclude only one percent of their cases are linked to travel and less than 5 percent of their cases are linked to gatherings.

In our exclusive interview with Dr. Vohra, he explained further why we don’t have some of this data.

“We don’t really need to be publicizing outbreaks related to work,” Dr. Vohra said. “I know other counties have made other decisions, and I know we have taken criticism for that decision, but we feel like that’s working pretty well for us.”

“Other counties have applied other resources in other ways and that might be the best answer,” Pomeville said. “There’s not a standardized way in California that this is done. Some counties are doing it and some counties are not.”

He is right. The state does not require county health departments to publish contact tracing information.

In the interview, we ask “but some counties are compiling the information they receive from those interviews and allowing the people to do what they will with the data and that’s where I’m trying to understand why we’re not doing that?”

“I think if there was a statewide standard or minimum practice, but right now there’s not a mandate for that,” Pomeville answered.

Ultimately, while we now know more than half of the coronavirus cases in Fresno County come from people spreading it in their homes, there is still a lot of unanswered questions we will be asking the county about next week.

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July 23 2021 05:30 pm

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