Tracking COVID-19: UCSF launches statewide contact tracing training based on successful SF program

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- UCSF's contact tracing program is a real opportunity to build a Better Bay Area. ABC7 is committed to navigating this with you, and helping you get back to whatever normal will be during and after the pandemic.

One way thousands of Californians are getting back to work is through this expanding contact tracing program, which began in San Francisco.

RELATED: Coronavirus Doctor's Note: What is contact tracing and why do we care?

A seemingly benign online interface, which is being taught virtually, is now one of the most powerful tools in the fight against COVID-19. Along with people like Jensa Woo, it's meant to stop outbreaks.

"It's very intense work, very satisfying," said Woo.

Woo is one of 200 contact tracers in San Francisco, a program that has been so successful, it's now being replicated statewide.

Before the pandemic, Woo was a librarian at the city's Merced Branch.

"I was really sad when the libraries closed, so I think this is a good use of my time."

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

Woo was trained on the system, and this week got to work tracing outbreaks from home using a laptop to call people who were in close contact with someone positive for coronavirus.

She works in four-hour shifts and has called more than a dozen people.

"There were some substantial conversations that I had to find out what's going on in this household, or actually, not only have I contacted you, but you have told me that you tested positive for the virus and then we mark that on the online database," said Woo, who is very impressed with San Francisco's system.

"It's interesting work. It's kind of like being a detective, although it's all virtual," said Dr. George Rutherford, a UCSF professor of epidemiology and the principal investigator for the contact tracing program.

"Good contact tracers can talk to people, they're used to talking to people, and they're used to interviewing people. We have tremendous need for people who speak Spanish."

RELATED: Rare partnership between Apple and Google will bring COVID-19 contact tracing app to users

Starting now, UCSF and UCLA will begin virtually training 3,000 contact tracers a week throughout California, all re-deployed civil servants, like Woo, who are not otherwise working.

"When we do contact tracing for measles, for instance, we find people fast enough we can vaccinate them against measles. If we do contact tracing for tuberculosis, we treat them and make them non-infectious very quickly. With this, the "therapeutics" are putting people into isolation who are infected, letting the disease run its course, and not infect anybody else," explained Dr. Rutherford.

"It's really people that you're in contact with at the workplace and at home, those are the ones we're worried about," said Rutherford, who said wearing a mask in public and maintaining social distance is key to avoiding not only spreading the virus, but also limiting who contact tracers need to locate and interview should you get infected.

The tracing outcome is also largely dependent on those on the receiving end of a call.

"Overall, San Franciscans have been very cooperative," said Woo. "That makes the work a lot easier."

If you have a question or comment about the coronavirus pandemic, submit yours via the form below or here.
Get the latest news, information and videos about the novel coronavirus pandemic hereRELATED STORIES & VIDEOS:
Copyright © 2020 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.