San Diego County has been the site of more than 240 community coronavirus outbreaks since early March, including 175 cases confirmed at a local business and 48 at a food-processing center. But the specific locations of these incidents remain a mystery.

The county released a list Thursday afternoon of every such outbreak it has confirmed from the start of the pandemic through the end of August, but included none of the business names or addresses that many in the public have been requesting for months now.

The list arrived as the county’s daily COVID-19 tracking report announced 325 additional novel coronavirus cases, five deaths and two additional community outbreaks said to have occurred in a local business and in a restaurant with a bar. San Diego State University, which suspended in-person instruction for four weeks on Wednesday after discovering that 64 of its students had tested positive since its fall semester began on Aug. 24, did not release fresh numbers Thursday. A university representative said the case total will be updated on Friday.

Since the county made public the number of local community outbreaks — defined as three or more cases from different households who visited the same location in the same 14-day span — many have demanded to know exactly where they are occurring, often so that they can use the information to make choices about where they shop, recreate and dine.

But the county has refused to provide specifics, insisting that such information could make it relatively easy to identify those who have tested positive and that offering address-level locations would make some exposed and infected individuals less likely to fully disclose their whereabouts during the critical contact tracing interviews. Those interviews are currently the best way of stopping the novel coronavirus from moving quickly from person to person in the community.

Two local news organizations, Voice of San Diego and KPBS, recently sued the county demanding release of unredacted outbreak information on the grounds that such information could help contain the spread of the virus. which has now infected 39,446 in San Diego County and more than 6 million in the United States.

However, in a written statement following a public records request filed by the news outlets, the county says any claims of public interest in disclosing outbreak locations are overridden by the needs of its public health department to investigate new cases throughout the community.

“The public interest in not disclosing the specific outbreak locations clearly outweighs the public’s interest in releasing this information,” the county letter states, adding that releasing addresses could have a “chilling effect” on those who are reluctant to discuss their exposures with government investigators.

Some, though, will recall that the public health department has, on occasion, released public notices of infectious disease exposures in specific locations at specific times.

Incidents include a local restaurant where cases were detected during the region’s 2016-2017 hepatitis A outbreak and also several highly-trafficked retail locations visited by people infected during the multi-state measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in late 2014. Tuberculosis infections are also disclosed in many locations, most often schools.

These instances, the county states, are driven by an overriding need “to prevent the spread of a disease or occurrence of additional cases.” In the past, the county has often said that broad notification of the public that exposure to an infectious disease has occurred in a specific place at a specific time is necessary because there is no complete record of every person who was present during the window of possible exposure.

But, for the community outbreaks listed in the county’s newly-released list, the health department says it sees no compelling evidence that disclosure of locations would serve a public health purpose.

“For outbreak locations subject to this request, it has been determined that the public release of specific locations is not necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the county states.

Despite the lack of addresses on the county list, the details included do shed some additional light on community outbreaks that have occurred across San Diego from early March through August.

Comparing two dates provided for each outbreak — the date the first case was detected and the second the day when the outbreak was confirmed — shows that it takes time for the health department to be sure it has a grouping of at least three cases from different households in the same place within the same 14-day window.

On average, it took 25 days to confirm a community outbreak, with a record so far of 58 days for a collection of 11 residents with confirmed infections who each visited the same Carlsbad restaurant and bar. The first case in that investigation was someone who got sick on June 23, but health investigators did not document at least three cases in the same location until Aug. 20.

Public health officials did not respond Thursday afternoon to a request for more information on the length of time it takes to confirm outbreaks, but the county cites this lag time as one reason why specifying locations would not serve a significant public purpose.

“Releasing the names now would do little to protect the public, especially when the business is cooperating with the Public Health Officer, exposed individuals have been notified, and measures have been taken to mitigate the risk of additional outbreak(s),” the county states.

The average number of cases per community outbreak — not including those that have occurred in skilled nursing and other congregate living facilities — is seven. There have been 12 deaths associated with community outbreaks, and, generally speaking, the total number of outbreaks correlates with a city’s total population.





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