Contact Tracing A Key Tool in Fight Against COVID-19 For Diverse Communities

Like many who are called to the field of public health, Karem Valenzuela, who works as a contact tracer at the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, has a long-term passion for helping people. Valenzuela started her career in social services working with people diagnosed with terminal illnesses, those experiencing homelessness and clients with special needs.

Now, as a contact tracer, Valenzuela contacts patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 due to a positive confirmed test result and makes sure they have access to information on how to stay safe, follow appropriate quarantine measures and, if needed, get access to necessities like food and shelter.

“When coronavirus started affecting everyone, I became very interested in helping those in need, so I started to research and educate myself about the virus. I even took a contact tracer training course through Johns Hopkins,” said Valenzuela. “I came across the position to work as a contact tracer with the CDC Foundation, and it matched my experience and background.”

Valenzuela faced challenges in her work this year as residents face dual concerns about staying healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic amid the wildfires raging across California. This has created a need for increased coordination among health department staff and the ability to quickly operationalize plans for evacuating residents while still maintaining coronavirus safety protocols. This collaboration has been an integral piece of the work conducted at the Santa Clara County Health Department, which serves a diverse population and publishes public health information in five languages, including Spanish due to its large Latinx community.

Karem Valenzuela, contact tracer with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department

A COVID-19 informational poster in Vietnamese from Santa Clara

Dr. Sarah Rudman, assistant public health officer, Santa Clara Health Department

“We also have a wide range of socioeconomic diversity, and frankly, the income disparity that comes with that—it's one of the most powerful factors that has impacted what our epidemic looks like here in Santa Clara,” said Dr. Sarah Rudman, assistant public health officer for the department. “It has struck me from the beginning how quickly this epidemic shifted from one associated with the international outbreaks to…the same communities of color that are hit by almost every other disease disproportionately in the county, especially our Latinx community members.”

At the beginning of this month California Governor Gavin Newsom implemented a regional stay at home order triggered by hospital ICU capacity. This requires areas, like Santa Clara, which experience less than 15 percent ICU capacity to close most of their non-essential businesses.

A key aspect to the state combatting COVID-19 is testing. In August, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department announced it was opening a new high-capacity COVID-19 testing site located at the county’s fairgrounds. Health officials anticipate the site will be the largest testing center in the region and will eventually be able to perform 5,000 tests daily.

To do this work, the health department needs help. In order to provide support, the CDC Foundation hired surge public health workers through the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps. The surge staff in Santa Clara, as well as others in some of the country’s most-impacted areas—from Detroit, MI, to Oklahoma City, OK—were all hired with the help of a $15 million donation provided by TikTok, one of the CDC Foundation’s largest corporate gifts.

We’re thinking about how we can prevent the next pandemic based on the lessons we’re learning right now.

Since starting her work at the Santa Clara County Health Department, Valenzuela has seen first-hand how much of an impact her work can have on the community. Shortly after starting at the health department, Valenzuela was working with a client who tested positive for coronavirus and was also asthmatic. The client’s doctor was becoming increasingly concerned about her asthma that was worsening and recommended she get a ventilator. The client lived in a small space with other family members, which made it difficult to get the needed equipment into her home. Valenzuela and a colleague assisted, and in less than 24 hours, the client had received the ventilator and was on her way to a hotel room to self-isolate.

“She called to thank me, and I told her it wasn’t just me, it’s a group of us working together. She was very grateful,” said Valenzuela. “Personally and professionally, this work has provided me with a different perspective of public health because we have a team approach to helping and guiding our community.”

Despite the challenges, Rudman reflects on the important mission of public health to serve the community and help address the intersection of how an individual’s environment has drastic effects on their quality of health and impacts the quality of healthcare they receive.

“My colleagues and I are thinking about not just how we can keep the person alive who is sick with COVID-19, but also keep them from getting sick—thinking about intersections between disease spread and climate change, urbanization, safe housing and access to medical care,” said Rudman. “We’re thinking about how we can prevent the next pandemic based on the lessons we’re learning right now.”

The work taking place at the Santa Clara County Public Health Department is part of a larger network of health workers who are on the frontlines during this public health crisis. They, along with so many of the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps, are helping in underserved communities where these resources are needed the most.