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Scott Steepleton, Editor
11:18 am PDT July 19, 2020

Contact tracing has received much attention lately as public health officials try to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The mobile device you carry and may even be using to read Malibu Surfside News is likely now equipped with technology that can, if you opt-in to certain apps, tell you whether you’ve come in contact with anyone infected with the virus.

Apple and Google call their partnership in this effort an “exposure notification system in service of privacy-preserving contact tracing.”

Now that’s 21st century technology.

But contact or case tracing dates to 500 years earlier and the search for the origin of the great pox, aka syphilis. Writing in The Conversation US, Samuel Cohn and Mona O'Brien of the University of Glasgow credit the journals of Christopher Columbus for providing some contemporaneous history on the subject.

In the time of COVID-19, contact tracing is much more detailed than reading a diary. Here’s the protocol as laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Interview people with COVID-19 to identify everyone they had close contact with during the time they may have been infectious;

  • Notify contacts of their potential exposure;

  • Refer contacts for testing;

  • Monitor contacts for signs and symptoms of COVID-19

Beyond that is connecting all those people, aka contacts with services they might need during self-quarantine.

A transcript of an April press briefing by Gov. Gavin Newsom shows how he stressed contact tracing as key to the “reopening” of California. “The most important framework is our capacity to expand our testing, to appropriately address the tracing and tracking of individuals, the isolation and the quarantine of individuals using technology and using a workforce that needs to be trained and an infrastructure that needs to be in place in order to begin the process to transition,” the governor said.

Not everyone has been tested, of course. But California has reopened.

No, it’s closed.

No, it’s reopened.

Sort of.

Contact tracing is being done, but trying to get information from the county about data pertaining to Malibu — which in two months has seen cases more than double to 71 — is impossible.

As I told you a couple weeks ago, the county Public Health Department seems unable to provide any information on the cases here.

We’re not talking about personal information, but anonymized information about how many people an infected person had contact with, where and when. That seems important to helping the rest of us make appropriate and perhaps life-saving choices.

When the county could provide no information about contact tracing data as it pertains to Malibu, I asked Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, whose district includes the city of nearly 13,000, for help.

She more or less directed me to the daily report that we already use on our website for the COVID-19 update.

“Since early in the pandemic, DPH has been reporting case numbers by city or community,” she said in a statement provided to me. “Malibu is not alone in seeing an increase in the number of cases.”

OK, but we’re contact tracing, right? Where are the cases coming from?

Malibu saw a spike about two weeks after the protest-riots that started in late May. Did Malibuites go to Hollywood, Los Angeles or elsewhere to take part in the unrest and the peaceful protests and bring it home? Or, is the thinking that businesses were allowed to reopen too early?

Do the interviews show that family gatherings really are the culprit?

“As we allowed more businesses to reopen, we began to see increases in cases in communities all across L.A. County and across the state,” according to Kuehl. “As (DPH) is notified of new cases, the department immediately opens a tracing investigation. So far there is no significant evidence linking the recent protests to the increase in cases. Rather, public health inspections suggest that the rise in cases appears to be linked to a failure of individuals and businesses to fully comply with our public health orders, especially those with indoor service.”

This, however, appears based more on inspections of businesses rather than interviews with those infected.

Either way, the findings were enough to spur the supervisor to co-author a board motion forcing the county to develop an enforcement plan “that includes fines and pulling permits for businesses that do not strictly adhere to the county’s public health guidelines.”

Which brings us back to the original questions from a few weeks ago, that I posed to county officials again on July 6: How many of the Malibu cases have contact tracers been able to reach?

What has contact tracing told us about those cases?

On July 13, I finally got an answer from the county.

“We’re checking on the status of this to see if we have more to offer.”


Scott Steepleton is the editor of Malibu Surfside News. If you or a family member has been diagnosed with the virus and want to talk about it anonymously, send him an email at