Coronavirus Progress: Santa Clara County's new COVID-19 Investigations Unit sees early success specializing in contact tracing

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office said it's seeing success in its recently launched COVID-19 Investigations Unit (CIU).

The purpose of the CIU is contact tracing within sheriff's facilities and stopping the spread throughout the agency.

It's a unit like we've never seen. The CIU was launched on the 26th of March.

"We had our first case on the 27th," Lt. Michelle Asban told ABC7 News. "We actually hadn't had our office set up yet, and we literally- ground-up- we had to go in and start our investigation."

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Nearly a month later, the office reports it's seeing success.

"Our role is to stop the spread of the virus in the workplace, and of course to mitigate the risk of exposure to the public," she said.

Lt. Asban is leading the team of 18, which includes seven sergeants, eight investigators, two analysts and herself.

"We've been actually able to identify potential contact exposure of certain individuals at work, have them quarantine, and then get them tested," Asban said.

The collaborative effort traces the risk of COVID-19 exposure among employees and county inmates.

"We work collaboratively with Custody Health Services. They conduct their own stats and testing, they'll give us information on inmates that are pending testing for COVID-19, and also let us know inmates that have tested positive," she explained.

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The idea is to identify any risk, isolate and quarantine if needed, in order to stop the spread.

"Contact tracing is one of our best public health tools," ABC7 News special correspondent, Dr. Alok Patel said. "And we've seen it work many times in the past, with Ebola, with Polio, with Tuberculosis.":

Dr. Patel said it's no different now.

In Santa Clara County, 13 sheriff's office personnel have tested positive for the virus.

"That's a mixture of our non-badge to badge staff," Asban clarified. "And we have about three inmates that have tested positive, that have been in our custody."

All inmates, plus nine employees have recovered, according to Asban. Four others remain under quarantine.

Lt. Asban said the sheriff's office has noticed a lull in COVID positive cases.

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"We don't have any new cases. So, I suppose it's working," she added.

Health experts explained that in order to prevent a rebound outbreak, trained contact tracers must stay on top of monitoring who might be exposed.

"Contact tracing is going to be really important as we start talking about reopening society," Dr. Patel added.

The CDC recently published great detail on contact tracing. The center explained the tool is a specialized skill.

For a detailed explanation by the CDC, click here.

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Patel added, it's also time consuming, labor intensive, but extremely necessary in this fight.

"Estimates right now show the U.S. as having several thousand, maybe 5,000 or more trained contact tracers. Governor Newsom announced a plan to train as many as 10,000, and some public health officials are estimating that in the long run, we're going to need hundreds of thousands of contact tracers," Dr. Patel told ABC7 News.

For now, the effort continues in hard-hit Santa Clara County.

"I think this is the sheriff's best effort at trying to prevent the exposure from coming from outside our workforce and into the public," Lt. Asban said. "So, this is our preventative measure of stopping the spread in the workplace."

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