By Neil Farrell

Diagnosed cases of the coronavirus continue to mount in San Luis Obispo County, and the health department is calling for more testing to be done and is greatly boosting its contact tracing efforts even as the State calls on residents to wear masks to slow the spread.

“The County of San Luis Obispo Public Health Department is expanding its contact tracing team to 24 people, approximately tripling its size, to help in the fight against COVID-19 in local communities,” reads a news release from Michelle Shoresman, the County’s public information officer for the pandemic.

“We are working hard to manage the spread of COVID-19 in SLO County,” said SLO County Health Officer, Dr. Penny Borenstein. “If you have been exposed, we will call you and ask you to self-quarantine at home based on when you were exposed. Help us slow transmission and answer the call to manage the spread.”

So far, the County’s tracers have been able to investigate all the reported COVID-19 cases but their workload increases with each new case. The numbers of contacts per case — the people who may have been exposed to the virus by one person who is sick — have also increased as the community reopens the economy.

Contact tracing “is a time-tested public health practice in which trained investigators follow up on each case to identify those who may have been exposed to the disease. They ask how the patients are doing, issue isolation orders, and help connect them with care and services, if needed,” said Shoresman.

Tracers notify people who may have been exposed, Shoresman said, without disclosing where or by whom, issue quarantine letters, and organize free testing and other services if needed. Those at high risk receive daily follow-up calls. Throughout the process, all personal information, including names, is kept confidential.

In conjunction, the County has greatly stepped up its COVID-19 testing program for high-risk residents, using a new tool that speeds up getting test results.

According to another press release from Shoresman, “The County Public Health Laboratory recently began running COVID-19 test samples through a device called the Panther, which allows public health microbiologists at the laboratory to now test up to 300 samples per day.”

“Increasing our testing capacity in SLO County helps all of us,” said Dr. Borenstein. “One of the State’s metrics for staying open involves testing. At the same time, increased testing capacity also supports our contact tracing efforts, which we’ve recently expanded to meet our community’s growing needs.”

The lab will prioritize testing from time-sensitive and higher-risk situations, Shoresman said, including health care workers and public health contact investigations.

“Fast results in these cases can help protect more people from being exposed to COVID-19 and can help connect vulnerable patients with appropriate care.”

The County lab started using the Panther June 12 and has since tested 786 samples.

Laboratory Director Dr. James Beebe called the Panther a “workhorse.” He said they use the tool daily in the diagnosis of other communicable diseases, as well.

In other coronavirus news, the City of Morro Bay is shutting down its community response program, launched in March and manned by City employees and volunteers.

“Since its inception nearly 100 days ago,” reads a news release from Recreation Services Manager, Kirk Carmichael, who has been overseeing the program for the City in recent weeks. “City volunteers, Morro Bay CERT [Community Emergency Response Team], have made over 7,500 calls assisting Estero Bay community members with grocery and/or RX needs.”

With the Morro Bay Cares Program placed on hold until further notice, Carmichael said in the interim, Morro Bay Cares will take the form of “Morro Bay Connects,” with the intent of pairing up those who need help with volunteers in the community.

“The Morro Bay Cares program was put together though a collaboration of the City and a local volunteer base lead by local residents, Marty and Roni Lomeli. The program later transitioned to the City’s Recreation staff, who have done a fantastic job fielding the various calls, coordinating efforts with volunteers, and serving the Estero Bay community. Equally, the time and efforts put forth by our citizen volunteers is a true reflection of the kind and caring people found here in our community.”

For more information on this program and other general information on City programs and efforts on COVID-19 see: www.morrobayca.gov/covid19 or call the Morro Bay Connects line at (805) 772-0678.

And in Statewide coronavirus news, Gov. Gavin Newsome has decreed that everyone needs to wear a facemask, as statewide cases continue to climb.

The State is requiring “face coverings” in high-risk settings. “Today’s guidance,” Shoresman said, “mandates the use of cloth face coverings by the general public statewide when outside the home, with limited exceptions, including children under the age of 2, people who have medical or mental health conditions that prevent wearing face coverings, and people who are eating or drinking at a restaurant or establishment that offers food or beverages, and others.”

Dr. Borenstein added, “Wearing face coverings can slow the spread of COVID-19 and can potentially stop waves of outbreaks, which helps us continue to fully reopen our economy. This requirement offers an additional layer of protection for all of us, especially workers in our favorite places.”

For information on the virus response, recommendations and orders, go online to: ReadySLO.org. Or call the County’s assistance center at (805) 543-2444 Mondays-Fridays, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with questions related to COVID-19.

As of June 27, the Health Department said there have been 508 confirmed cases of COVID-19 countywide. Some 381 people have already recovered leaving 127 active cases. Twelve people were hospitalized with five in intensive care units at local hospitals. And just one person has died, a number that perhaps miraculously has not changed since early in the virus’ rampage.