San Francisco Launches Innovative Contact Tracing Program to Strengthen Coronavirus Response
Technology will enable swifter communication, better data tracking, and improved interventions to reduce further spread. Collaboration with UCSF will provide a model for communities nationwide in strengthening pandemic response infrastructure.
San Francisco, CA — Mayor London N. Breed and Director of Health Dr. Grant Colfax announced today an innovative new program to identify Bay Area residents who have been exposed to coronavirus, and give them access to the testing and resources needed to keep themselves and their communities safe.
The new contact tracing program will use technology to dramatically expand San Francisco’s ability to find and connect with individuals who may be close contacts of a person with a confirmed case of coronavirus. This capability will strengthen the City’s response to the pandemic, by allowing for swifter communication, better data tracking, and stronger interventions to reduce further spread.
“We are committed to doing everything we can to slow the spread of COVID-19 in San Francisco,” said Mayor Breed. “At the same time, we need to look ahead and plan for how we will eventually go about easing the Stay Home Order while continuing to protect public health. When the time comes to make changes to the Order, we need this contact tracing program in place so that we’re equipped to respond to new cases and keep the virus from spreading out of control. I want to thank the Department of Public Health and UCSF for working together to develop this new program, and I’m grateful to all the City and UCSF staff who are stepping up to support this effort.”
“Today, we are laser focused on the health emergency in our city,” said Dr. Grant Colfax. “We are doing everything we can to reduce the spread of the virus in our community, protect vulnerable populations, health care workers and first responders. But even as we respond to outbreaks now, we are looking ahead. We need to build a fast-moving, comprehensive system to track cases and support people to prevent further spread as much as possible as we ultimately move out of shelter in place into a new phase of fighting the pandemic.”
The program is a partnership between the City of San Francisco, Department of Public Health, UCSF, and DIMAGI, a software company that has been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to digitize a workflow to support contact tracing and monitoring of people who are potentially infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“This collaboration serves as a powerful example of what we can achieve when we bring together the best minds across our public health system, with the City, academic medical centers and community partners,” said Dr. Sam Hawgood, chancellor of UCSF. “UCSF and our county health partners have worked together on every major health crisis our city has faced, reaching back to 1873, including caring for victims of the 1906 earthquake, cholera, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. We are here to serve patients during the COVID pandemic and will be here to help our City rebuild on the other side.”
San Francisco’s new program will engage with individuals who test positive for COVID-19 to identify whom they have had contact with in recent days. Specially trained outreach workers will then follow up remotely with any individuals who may have been in contact with the COVID-positive patient. These conversations will be voluntary, confidential, and culturally and linguistically appropriate. Immigration status will have no bearing on these conversations.
Case contacts will be able to receive daily text messages or phone calls checking in on their health and symptoms throughout the 14-day monitoring period. They can self-report symptoms via text, immediately alerting public health officials that follow up or testing may be required.
The new program will amass an unprecedented number of personnel to respond immediately by phone and text across the city, and potentially the region, whenever there is a newly confirmed case, in order to take immediate action to prevent the spread among contacts as much as possible. This capability will enable the City to move forward after the shelter in place order is lifted.
Over the past weekend, UCSF faculty working within DPH-led trainings for over 50 people who will support these efforts, including San Francisco librarians, DPH and City Attorney staff, and UCSF medical students. Additional trainings are ongoing, with the ultimate goal of scaling up a citywide and regional workforce.
Contact tracing is just one part of an effective response infrastructure that will include aggressive outbreak investigations, expanded testing, adherence to isolation and quarantine orders, as well as continued prevention. These will be critical in the future to maintaining any gains we make due to our current efforts to flatten the curve.
This new program, which is currently in a testing phase, will augment current case investigation and contact tracing work, which is a bedrock of public health. It already has contributed to San Francisco’s efforts by contacting people who are close contacts and providing them with information about how to prevent further exposure.
For this program to work, people who are contacted will need to have confidence that their participation is confidential, voluntary, based in science, and in their best interests. There have been instances in San Francisco when people have been unwilling to work with contact investigators, either because they do not trust them, do not understand the purpose, or do not have all the information they need to feel comfortable. The City wants to make sure that all San Franciscans have equitable access to this innovative new program, and DPH will conduct outreach to ensure the public is aware of the program and knows what they should expect if contacted by a public health official.