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Contact tracing in San Diego county

 November 3, 2021 at 8:30 AM PDT

Good Morning, I’m Annica Colbert….it’s Wednesday november 3rd.>>>>

Was san diego’s contact tracing program worth it?

More on that next. But first... let’s do the headlines….######

300-thousand San Diego county children will be eligible for the pfizer vaccine recommended on Tuesday by a c-d-c committee. Dr. christian ramers, with the family health centers of San Diego says this decision is a game changer.

i know pediatricians across the country are absolutely excited because they’ve been seeing the suffering of the kids that actually end up in the hospital, those that go on with long term symptoms.

The CDC director still has to approve the recommendation, along with the Western States review group.

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The San Diego County board of supervisors voted 3-2 on Tuesday to keep in place their COVID-19 vaccine mandate for county employees. The vote followed intense debate and public comment that included a man who said he wished death upon the supervisors and made racist and bigoted comments at the board meeting. Board chair Nathan Fletcher released a statement after the meeting saying [quote] "Dissent and disagreement is essential to a functioning and healthy democracy, but the hateful, racist and vulgar speech dominating our meetings has no place in San Diego County."

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In another board of supervisors decision, a regional office to support the film and tv industry will open in San Diego county. Here’s "film consortium san diego" founder jodi cilley [silly].

“this is a really complex industry, it’s a very expensive city, so creating any jobs here is incredible and if you’ve seen the budgets on some of these films, they’re huge. a lot of money could be brought to san diego

The office would help with permits, connect productions with locations and crew… even assist with resources like fire, police and parking.

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From KPBS, you’re listening to San Diego News Now. Stay with me for more of the local news you need.

San Diego County’s contact tracing program was envisioned as a critical pillar in the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19. The idea was to identify everyone who had been exposed to COVID-19 and notify them so they could quarantine.

KPBS investigative reporter Claire Trageser looks into how the county’s program actually worked.

It was the early days of the pandemic and Jessica wanted to do something, anything, to help. So she jumped at the chance to be a case investigator for San Diego County’s contact tracing program.

“It was a pretty steep learning curve, we were thrown into the mix within just a few days of training. But after a few days of pretty rigorous training, I would say that I caught on pretty quickly.”

KPBS is not using Jessica’s real name and has distorted her voice to protect her livelihood. She is part of a contact tracing program that at one point employed nearly 1,000 people and has so far cost the county millions. Despite this commitment, it became clear within months that it wasn’t nearly enough to stop the spread.

During the summer surge of 2020, just 11% of people with COVID-19 were being contacted by a case investigator within a day—far short of the county’s goal of 70%.

Now, more than 18 months into the pandemic, experts are looking back on the program to examine how it could have been changed to be more effective. Rebecca Fielding-Miller is an epidemiologist at UC San Diego.

“Contact tracing is the most useful for putting out flare ups rather than dealing with a wildfire. So in the very beginning, it was really important to catch those flare ups as quickly as we could, but testing was so hard to get that it was hard to test. Then when we got into the peak of the virus, we could not tamp down that wildfire with contact tracing.”

County officials would not agree to be interviewed for this story, but county spokesman Michael Workman insisted in emailed responses to questions that the program is worthwhile. Still, he acknowledged, that even now the county is only able to reach and interview about 50% of people exposed.

Jessica feels her work has made a difference. But the job has taken a significant toll on her mental health. Especially since COVID vaccine became available and the virus became even more politicized. People will scream at her and tell her she can’t control them, and that COVID is a myth.

“So it can feel like a Sisyphian task at times when there are folks who just don't want that information or potentially are going out into the community after perhaps they've tested positive or have been exposed, knowing that they are potentially exposing other people to this virus. Knowing that there are some people who don't stop to think about how that can be affecting other people in their own community, it's a heartbreaker.”

Then, another setback. As vaccination rates increased and case counts decreased in the spring and early summer, the county cut back its contact tracing staff by nearly half. Then, as the Delta variant surged, the county tried to hire back the contact tracers who’d been laid off.

Cases will likely surge again over the holiday season. But in 2022 and beyond, as COVID becomes endemic, not a pandemic, contact tracing will prove especially useful. So says Fielding-Miller, the epidemiologist.

“Think of the wildfire analogy, we will be keeping an eye out for hotspots, and the quicker we can stop a hotspot, the better everyone will be.”

Meanwhile, for Jessica the heartbreak continues.

“I just had someone call me yesterday asking me if the county could help in any way because she was going to miss 10 days of work and her employer was not providing any kind of sick pay for her.”

Despite the stress, she will keep working as long as she's needed.

Claire Trageser, KPBS News

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The Oceanside Unified School district held a special meeting on Tuesday to vote on controversial proposals to consolidate, and close several schools.

KPBS North County reporter Tania Thorne tells us the outcome.

Parents, teachers and students rallied before the district meeting in hopes of getting the school board to shut down the idea of closing and combining schools in the district.

It seems the board got their message.

Board president, Stacy Begin, presented a new motion.

“We will not move forward with consolidation of schools at this time and we start the process of rebuilding Reynolds elementary and modernizing Surfside Academy.”

The board voted unanimously in favor of the motion and for the time being, no schools in Oceanside will be consolidated or closed.

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Local climate change experts are watching the climate summit in Scotland, and they’re concerned that participants are not focused on the immediate actions necessary to stave off severe global warming.

KPBS Environment Reporter Erik Anderson has details.

San Diego researcher Veerabhadran Ramanathan says San Diego is already experiencing the impact of rising global temperatures and he worries how people will cope. He says immediate and drastic actions are needed to keep global warming from getting dramatically worse.

“Even if you ask the most gung-ho person, we are going to bring down the climate change. It’s going to take us at least 20 years, if not 30 years to bring down the emissions to below ten percent. I don’t think we’re ever going to get down to zero.

Ramanathan urged world leaders, including the pope, to make climate change a priority, but he’s losing faith.

“I am also honestly quite a bit disillusioned with these meetings. There are a lot of talks. Not substance. We are going to come with some meaningful things but nothing commensurate to the problem we are facing.”

New research out of UCLA already blames most of the western wildfire behavior on climate change. The study says the atmosphere is drying out landscapes. And that is just one impact. Climate Central’s science director Andrew Pershing says San Diego’s average temperature could climb six degrees by the end of the century if carbon emissions aren’t cut sharply.

“That’s a very different climate than what many people in San Diego grew up in. If we can limit warming to about 1.5 degrees then San Diego is looking at only about another degree of Fahrenheit warming so it’s a very similar world to the one that we have right now.”

California has some aggressive goals aimed at reducing the amount of carbon released into the air. But achieving a carbon neutral economy by 2050, might come too late to have a significant impact on warming.

Erik Anderson KPBS News

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A federal judge has struck down part of a California law that limits protests at vaccination sites.

Capradio’s scott rodd reports.

Earlier this year, protesters attempted to shut down some COVID-19 vaccination sites.

So California lawmakers passed legislation that establishes a buffer zone around vaccine locations and people entering them.

The law applies to all vaccination sites. An anti-abortion group filed a lawsuit, since abortion clincs provide certain STD vaccines.

The judge took issue with the law’s definition of “harassment”...which includes activities like passing out leaflets and displaying signs.

A temporary restraining order allows protesters to carry out those activities...but still prevents them from obstructing and intimidating people entering vaccination sites.

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Coming up.... for people getting out of jail or substance abuse recovery centers, reintegration back into society can be a tough journey.

“A lot of the guys that I was incarcerated with, they didn't have the family support, the friends were not positive influences and they might not come out of prison with a particular job skill, so i really wanted to help guys have all of those resources.”

We learn about a North County nonprofit helping recently released individuals with support and jobs. That’s next just after the break.

For people getting out of jail or drug and alcohol addiction recovery centers, reintegration back into society can be a tough journey. KPBS North County reporter Tania Thorne introduces us to a nonprofit helping recently released individuals with support and jobs.

On his days off, Nick Saldana gets ready to hit the waves.

But life for Saldana wasn’t always so “sweet” as he says.

NICK SALDANA

“Couch surfing , doing anything I got to do to get money, no matter what it was, stealing stuff from stores to eat to going to different friends' houses to see if they had food or whatever it was. Couch surf life basically.”

A final robbery and a tarnished record got Saldana 9 years in prison.

NICK SALDANA

“I would see people coming back in 2-3 times before I even get out. I’d be in there for a year and 3 years later and they'd come back and they're like ‘you're still here’ and i'm like yeah you're back?

Saldana didn't want to be back.

He completed his sentence by staying busy with fire camp, working out, and looking ahead to leaving his past behind.

When Saldana was released, he got a job at a grocery store. It helped him pay rent and buy a car… but he wasn’t happy.

NICK SALDANA

“Wake up at 4-5 go skate to work, if it was raining, skating to the bus in the rain, showing up soaking wet having to work in a dairy cooler and they didn't care.”

That’s when he got connected with Tim Lambesis, the founder of a nonprofit called Reintegration. It serves people who’ve served time or have left recovery programs… by helping them get jobs.

He helped Saldana get a stage crew job for TV shows and events... something he enjoys.

NICK SALDANA

“You just have to go and look for a job, reach out to a bunch of different people every single day, apply everywhere, and sooner or later its gonna come. Just depends how fast and how motivated the person is.”

Lambesis is the lead singer of the musical group ‘As I Lay Dying.”

He also faced his own legal battles.

In 2014, Lambesis pled guilty for attempting to hire someone to murder his wife at the time.

“It's not something i can defend or explain in a way that somebody’s going to be like ‘oh I get it’ because it doesn't make sense to me, it's not like a logical place in my life. It's just a dark spot in my life.”

Lambesis says he lives with regret everyday.

“Its something I wish I could take back everyday but there's nothing I can really do to take it back so much as I can just show that it was a very isolated moment in my life. And the only way to prove that is by the way I live my life moving forward.”

While he was in prison, Lambesis got a degree in addiction counseling.

TIM LAMBESIS/FOUNDER

“A lot of the guys that I was incarcerated with, they didn't have the family support, the friends were not positive influences and they might not come out of prison with a particular job skill, so i really wanted to help guys have all of those resources.”

Reintegration works with different companies looking to hire and willing to give people a chance.

They offer resume support and mock interviews to help them secure the job.

TIM LAMBESIS

“A lot of these guys are more than capable on their own of getting a job and they have skills they just need that support system and other guys needs to actually develop the skills so they maybe need to come in to a lower level job temporarily and work their way up so they can have that something that starts out on the minimum wage level but eventually can become a career.”

Lambesis says everyone is facing different things and the organization has to take every case by case.

But by offering support and helping people find a sustainable job, Lambesis says they are reducing recidivism and preventing old patterns from repeating.

TIM LAMBESIS

“ These are people that have been through things, a lot of times very heartbreaking things. As we give some of these guys, and hopefully some girls as well, a chance to tell their stories that not only validates what they’ve been through but helps employers see these are great people that have done a bad thing, not bad people.”

This is Reintegration’s first year of operation, and they’ve helped 12 people so far.

Their office in Carlsbad opens later this month.

Lambesis hopes the organization can grow their staff, employment opportunities, and the number of people they help.

“I think a little bit of the narrative is changing, especially around addiction, but with incarceration, people are often defined by this worst moment in their lives and I personally feel that people are so much more than that. I think people that have made a terrible mistake at one point in their life, they need to be able to do their time and move forward.”

And that reporting from KPBS’ Tania Thorne.

That’s it for the podcast today. Be sure to catch KPBS Midday Edition At Noon on KPBS radio, or check out the Midday podcast. You can also watch KPBS Evening Edition at 5 O’clock on KPBS Television, and as always you can find more San Diego news online at KPBS dot org. I’m Annica Colbert. Thanks for listening and have a great day.

The county hired nearly 1,000 people and spent millions on contract tracing, but the program aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 was too small to actually meet that goal. Still, experts say contact tracing can and will be effective in dealing with flare-ups of the disease. Meanwhile, local researchers are both hopeful and apprehensive about the climate conference underway in Scotland. Plus, for those getting out of jail or addiction recovery centers, transitioning back into society can be a tough journey. Reintegration works to help people find housing and employment.