Testing for coronavirus
Lab technicians test for coronavirus. Courtesy California Department of Public Health

The Newsom administration has teamed with two universities to train more than 3,000 employees per week to become coronavirus detectives tracing the spread of the disease throughout California.

Starting Wednesday, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, San Francisco will provide 20 hours of online and in-person training to state employees selected for the program.

The new “training academy,” as Gov. Gavin Newsom called it, is part of an effort to build an army of 20,000 people to test, trace and isolate people who may have been infected.

In addition, a new statewide database will help local health departments trace infected people and their contacts as they travel through the state.

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“I’m very excited about that innovation,” said Madera County public health director Sara Bosse. “It is something that we have needed for a decade in California, because we often have cases in which contacts cross counties for any disease.”

The process of tracking the virus as it spreads from person to person is called contact tracing. And experts agree that it is critical to quashing new outbreaks of the novel coronavirus before they start — particularly as efforts to reopen the state provide more opportunities for infection.

“As people move more, we increase the risk for people to get sick,” Sonia Angell, California Department of Public Health director and State Health Officer, said in a live stream. “If people get sick, we want to identify those individuals very early, and then make sure that all of their contacts are also identified.”

Right now, 23 of California’s 61 local health departments are actively tracking exposed contacts as the coronavirus spreads from person to person, according to Newsom. Nearly 3,000 investigators interview people who test positive, identify the people they’ve interacted with and notify them that they need to isolate or quarantine.

But the National Association of County and City Health Officials estimate that the nation will need 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 Americans to handle the pandemic. Which means that California’s 2,845 contact tracers fall far short of the 12,000 needed to track the virus through California’s population of nearly 40 million.

To that end, Newsom announced plans to redeploy state employees with “the right kind of background cultural sensitivity, cultural competency, different language skills, a health mindset.”

Madera County’s Bosse said she hasn’t yet seen the training modules. But she said that training resources have been a real need across the state, although her county has adjusted.

“Our contact-tracing resources, as you know, on a regular day, are quite small,” Bosse said — which means few people are generally available to help with training. “At this point, we now have a collection of folks that have significant skills and could easily do shadowing and on-the-job training.”

The new online training program could help standardize contact-tracing state-wide, she said. “It’s comforting to know that people would at least have a similar approach.”

Newsom and Angell did not say how they would provide in-person instruction, given public health recommendations for physical distancing.

They also did not say when the new contact tracers would be deployed. But when they are, local health authorities can request staffing help from the state,  according to Angell.

The new contact-tracing platform the state announced Monday will sync up with California’s existing digital disease surveillance platform, and contact tracers can use it to check in on people’s symptoms through texts, chat, emails, and phone automation, according to Angell. Angell emphasized that the database will focus on health information and will be kept confidential.

Bosse hopes the new digital database will help streamline contact-tracing for cases and contacts that cross county borders.

Still, there’s one major caveat to the state’s efforts to bolster contact-tracing, she said: people must be willing to cooperate, particularly if cooperating means missing work and wages — and potentially putting friends, family, and coworkers out of work for two weeks, too.

“With so many people who are unemployed or underemployed at this point, once they have the ability to be employed, are they going to be willing to be tested?” Bosse asks.

“Wage replacement, so ability to be paid sick leave, is going to be super important — or people are not going to agree to be tested, and then our contact tracing efforts will be really limited.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.