A consortium of South Bay city leaders are asking Santa Clara County officials to step up COVID-19 testing and contract tracing so schools and the economy can safely reopen, but the county executive cautioned against the idea of quick fixes, saying that addressing the pandemic will take “two to three years.”
In a letter from the Cities Association of Santa Clara County, mayors and councilmembers of all 15 cities in the county requested “accelerated action to ramp up testing” from the county Board of Supervisors, Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody and County Executive Jeff Smith.
The group asked county officials to identify a threshold in “unambiguous, quantitative terms” for the frequency of testing needed “to safely reopen schools and most businesses in our county,” the letter said.
But Smith said that while officials are aiming to increase the daily testing across the county to 3,000 or 4,000 per day, it would be incorrect to pin hopes on testing numbers because many layered decisions must be made before shelter-in-place rules can be relaxed.
“It’s not really that you get to a certain number and suddenly everything gets opened up again; it’s not a single target,” Smith said.
Smith also noted that the shortage of testing is “frustrating” because it’s a problem grounded in a lack of national and international preparedness for a pandemic of this scale, so there are supply bottlenecks for test kits and chemicals as “everyone and their brother” is trying to obtain them.
“So right now we’re at a point where, we’re clearly as a state — and basically all the states — behind the eight ball in the sense of wanting to have more testing capacity than what’s actually available,” he said.
The mayors on the letter — including Sam Liccardo of San Jose, Rich Tran of Milpitas, and Larry Klein of Sunnyvale — offered their cities’ staff time to support the county and asked county officials to consider forming a testing “task force,” similar to one Gov. Gavin Newsom announced.
They also requested the county “make a comprehensive list of testing sites available to the public, including a description of the specific tests offered,” and “identify the number of persons sufficient to deploy ample contact-tracing teams for a safe reopening of the economy.”
Smith said those kinds of considerations have been under discussion for weeks at the county level but said it will take more than just a certain number of tests and a certain number of contact tracers to address the issue.
As testing ramps up, he estimates about 600 people would need to be dedicated to the task, working full time after undergoing “significant training” to contact trace throughout the county.
He also said there would need to be a major network of support services and resources available to help people affected by possible quarantine mandates, to ensure they have safe places to stay and that their families have enough food and supplies.
“We’re setting up the process right now of identifying that, and certainly the cities and their efforts would be more than welcome in order to make that happen,” he said.
“Once we transition to contact tracing, it’s much more detailed work with a much longer timeline than everybody would like. It’ll take a lot of effort and a lot of patience in order to accomplish what needs to happen, so although we would like to have a trigger that says once we’ve done X,Y,Z, it’s done, it’s not going to be like that,” Smith said.
“We’re going to be dealing with COVID for the next many, many months, in my opinion, two or three years. We’ll just get better at dealing with it,” he added.
The city leaders said they want the county to say whether it needs their help “identifying unemployed residents able to undergo training to support testing or contact tracing activities,” and to tell them how many.
“Although the county is best positioned to lead, we stand ready to contribute,” the letter said.
“We’re really looking forward to working with the cities as we do on other major problems … and we’re certainly going to take advantage of their offer,” Smith said.
“I understand people are in a hurry and they want to see a solution rapidly. All I can say is that’s not the way pandemics work. They have slow, tedious timelines, and they don’t end instantaneously,” Smith said.
“It’s going to take a lot of dedicated time from a lot of people,” he said, “and we’re nowhere near the end.”
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Author: Joseph Geha