What is contact tracing and why isn’t BCSO releasing results of it in the jail?

Number of cases of deputies, support staff, inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 climbs over 70

SAN ANTONIO – Nearly a month after Bexar County Sheriff’s officials confirmed the first case of COVID-19 inside the Bexar County Jail, information on contact tracing efforts has still not been made publicly available.

Contact tracing is the process of identifying people who may have had contact with an infected person in an effort to ultimately slow the spread of an infection within a population.

Dr. Anita Kurian, assistant director of San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, said in an interview this week that a person who has COVID-19 is contagious for 48 hours before he or she starts exhibiting symptoms and remains contagious as long as that person is symptomatic.

Kurian said, in general, it is difficult to keep COVID-19 out of a jail setting.

Health officials work to trace COVID-19 cases in San Antonio

“They have all the right ingredients. They have a vulnerable population. It’s a small setting, everybody in close contact with one another. But considering congregate setting transmissions, I think it’s going as expected,” said Kurian, when asked specifically about the Bexar County Jail.

Earlier this week, the number of deputies, support staff and inmates who have tested positive climbed over 70.

But to date, officials have only confirmed that contact tracing investigations took place after people associated with the jail had tested positive.

BCSO officials have used the phrase “close contact transmission” when putting out some press releases in recent weeks, but so far have not said how many people may have been exposed while each of the individuals was contagious.

The phrase was used when describing cadet Class 2020-Alpha, which saw 70% of its class test positive for the virus.

BCSO officials last week confirmed a dispatcher who taught a class to the cadets at the agency’s academy also tested positive.

Officials have not said, however, whether they believe the dispatcher passed the virus to cadets, a cadet passed it to the dispatcher or if the infection came from a different source altogether.

Contact tracing information released by the city previously

In early April, days after city officials confirmed the first San Antonio Police Department officer to test positive for COVID-19, Assistant City Manager Dr. Colleen Bridger provided the council, and the public for that matter, the exact number of residents he had come into contact.

A city press release that included a link to Bridger’s comments noted that the 39 residents who came into contact with the officer were tracked down using contact tracing and were determined to have had low to negligible risk of exposure.

A Metro Health spokeswoman on Friday confirmed the agency is conducting contact tracing for BCSO deputies who have tested positive, but said it was unable to provide the results:

The Metropolitan Health District conducts contact tracing investigations for Bexar County Deputies and staff. Information is shared with the Bexar County Jail Administration to ensure those individuals who may have been exposed are tested. The County and University Health System reports all positive cases to Metro Health for reporting purposes. It is up to the discretion of the County to release detailed investigation information pertaining to their Deputies and Staff.

Officials have released little information on who is even handling contact tracing for inmates who test positive.

Kurian this week said the University Health System “is taking the lead on that investigation.” A UHS spokeswoman, however, sent an email Friday afternoon contradicting that information:

University Health System staff are screening, testing and caring for inmates at the Bexar County Detention Center. We are not handling contact tracing for the spread of COVID-19 in the jail, but we are supporting our partners in all efforts to manage the spread of this disease.

A BCSO spokesman previously said via email:

Although the contact tracing investigation is ongoing at this time with the assistance from UHS, it is too early to tell where the origin of the infection occurred.

However, once the investigation has been concluded and the results become available we will release that information to the public.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy-nominated photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.