Some frontline workers in this coronavirus pandemic are people you never see, but you may hear from them. Health experts say contact tracers are crucial to containing the spread of COVID-19, but only if the public cooperates.
Contract tracers get feedback that sometimes gets personal and sometimes gets political.
After Ava Roper of Bloomington got her public health degree from the University of Illinois in May, she wanted to put it to good use. She saw the McLean County Health Department(MCHD) needed contact tracers, the workers who get information from people who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Tracers call those who may have come in contact with those people so they can get tested and quarantine.
Roper joined the staff with more than a dozen others and learned on the fly.
“I would say it’s been hectic because we were all thrown into this,” Roper said. “One of the things about COVID is that we’re still learning. Everyone is still learning. The CDC is still learning.”
Roper now trains new contact tracers. So does Gaynett Hoskins, of Bloomington. She handles case investigations. Those calls are more probing because they require more detailed information.
“You have to be a little more in their business,” Hoskins said. “Who were you around? Think back on this day, what was going on? Do you remember if you went outside? Was there someone at the store with you.”
Many people don't want to give their personal information to a stranger over the phone. LaNell Greenberg of Normal works in the health department's communicable disease clinic. Since COVID, she's become a full-time contact tracer.
Greenberg said she's learned it helps if you can quickly connect with that stranger to build trust.
“Either as a mom, or someone who works full time or someone who lives in this community who might have used their services in the past, I try to break down that wall very quickly so that I can get them talking with me and understanding that we are here to serve them,” she said.
Sometimes even that doesn't work. They often hang up or give out wrong information because they don't want the health department bothering them. Or they have financial concerns.
Stacey Hirsch of Towanda is a health department nurse who has been doing contact tracing for 1 1/2 years (MCHD also traces other infectious diseases). She said sometimes the resistance about COVID comes from business owners who are afraid they may have to take workers off the job or temporarily close because of a potential COVID exposure.
“If they are forthcoming, they will give us all the contact people; it’s just (some) are employers not wanting to have their staff forced to quarantine,” Hirsch said. “That could be the issue. We get a lot of slack and we have a lot of people who aren’t very happy with us.”
Hoskins said there's another segment of the population that may not be forthcoming. She said she has to reassure immigrants their personal information won't somehow be used to deport them.
“Because they are concerned, what does this mean moving forward, things to that nature,” Hoskins said. “I just want them to know I honestly just want you to be safe."
Some of the pushback contact tracers get is from COVID skeptics. Greenberg said she never gets anywhere with them.
“We see this as a medical issue and as a community issue, but unfortunately politics--because of the election year--has really entered into this,” Greenberg said. “I have had pushback where some will flat out tell me this is a hoax, they are not taking my call and they think this is a joke.”
Melissa Graven, who oversees the health department's contact tracing program, said compliance has gotten worse since the pandemic began.
“There is a portion of the community that has an inherent distrust in government, so that’s why allaying those fears and building a quick connection is such a valid and important skill to have as a contact tracer,” Graven said.
That can be tough to do when people get verbally abusive. Hirsch has fielded those calls, too. She said she tries not to take it personally.
“I try not to when I’m on the phone with them. I maintain professionalism, but after the phone call I’ve cried many, many times and I’m not ashamed to say it,” she said.
The job also has become more difficult because a sharp rise in new cases in recent months created a backlog before the health department hired more contact tracers. Hirsch said until more contact tracers were hired, it was overwhelming.
“I would be never ... be leaving my desk. I felt like I was trapped to my computer and to my phone,” Hirsch said. “I wasn’t taking lunches. I wasn’t taking breaks. I was just on the phone from the time I got here until the time I left.”
Hirsch said because of the backlog, the department has had to prioritize cases involving nursing homes and schools. Others can be delayed for days. The health department has said if you test positive, don't wait for a call from the department--start your quarantine immediately.
Also, you can't test your way out of quarantine. Roper said that's the most common misconception she hears from the public.
“If you test negative [then] you are good to go and that your exposure is not going to lead to a positive result. We always want to emphasize to them they still need to quarantine for 14 days because even if they have a negative result on day five, on day eight they could still become positive,” Roper said.
Despite the hostility and avoidance they encounter when trying to do their job, contract tracers said they know they are making a difference.
Greenberg noted the coronavirus is especially hard for older people who have to isolate. She's made multiple follow-up calls to a woman who is stuck in quarantine at home and can't see her husband who is in the hospital with COVID.
“Making a connection with someone who is really isolated and an older member of our community, and she knows that someone cares; that’s my paycheck,” she said, adding she's concerned more people act as though life has returned to normal. Cases like this remind us it hasn't.
The McLean County Health Department hired about two dozen additional contact tracers this summer and more are coming on board soon.
There’s no subscription fee to listen or read our stories. Everyone can access this essential public service thanks to community support. Donate now, and help fund your public media.