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What It’s Like to Do Contact Tracing, America’s Hottest New Job

One of the ways to break the chain of transmission of COVID-19 is to use contact tracing to identify people who may have been exposed to a person with the illness. So hopeful are experts that this will help, that city and state health departments are hiring thousands of people to do this job. According to a CBS news report, experts say as many as 300,000 contact tracers could be hired across the country to fill the need, and Johns Hopkins University just launched a free Coursera course on what’s involved in becoming a contact tracer. In the first week the course was available, more than 82,000 people had signed up.

We caught up with Eric Seel, 33, a contact tracer in Burlington, Vermont. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, he’d been an STD contact tracer for the Vermont Department of Health. This made Seel an ideal candidate to pivot to helping contain this new coronavirus. Today, Seel is one of 58 COVID-19 contact tracers doing their part to help keep the Green Mountain state as healthy as possible. Here’s how Seel came to be a contract tracer and what it takes to do this job:

Seel’s path to contact tracing

After college, I really wanted to work with people. After a few jobs in healthcare, I got a job as an STD contact tracer. That eventually led to my current position as a COVID-19 contact tracer.

Eric Seel
Courtesy of Eric Seel

The first call

The first thing I do when I get a new positive case is to reach out to that person’s healthcare providers to find out who the person is and what happened to them medically. Those healthcare workers—and especially those in primary care—tend to have great information. Also, we’re a small state and people know people around here, so I might be told “hey this person just left the hospital. Can you give them an hour to get home and take their shoes off before you call them?” Once I connect with someone who is positive for COVID-19, I ask for names of all the people he or she has had contact with. Early on, when people weren’t socially distancing, that list of names could be pretty long.

Dialing the person’s contacts

Once we’ve spoken to the positive person, we then begin reaching out to the list of names he or she has given us. Our goal is always to make sure the person is in a place where he or she can talk so we always begin with “I’m calling from the Vermont Department of Health. Are you in a place to have a conversation with me right now?” This is really important because these people are about to hear they may have been exposed to the virus. From there, you get right to it: “You may have been exposed; this may have happened. Here are the tests we suggest you take” and then we always ask: “What can I do to help you take those steps?”

Every phone call is different

When you make these calls, you’re entering a minefield. You never know what sort of reaction you’re going to get when you hear a person pick up the phone. I’ve experienced so many scenarios. I once called the wife of a man who was hospitalized and unable to speak for himself and that call took place within 24 hours of him getting a positive result. It’s when the wound is freshest so this work requires a very delicate touch.

Staying home—and making a difference

Through it all, I’ve always felt that it’s the people that make this the job incredible. I may not be there for the good moments in peoples’ lives, but I’m there for a moment that’s impactful so being there for that person and trying to make that moment a little bit more bearable is what keeps me going. I also know that I have the great gift of being able to stay home and yet I can log into my job every day and actively do something that’s making a difference.

What it takes to do contact tracing

The job is really a combination of detective work, human interest and science. The best job assignment I’ve ever gotten was to watch a few old episodes of “Columbo” before I became a STD tracker. It was a good example of looking at situations with an investigator mindset. It was a fun way to see someone putting pieces of the puzzle together from various sources to form a narrative of events that no one party had on their own. His kind temperament and unassuming manner were a great contrast to the normal hardened investigator that is so often seen in other media.

Being able to connect with people and develop a meaningful relationship over a quick period of time and being able to look at and understand medical reports is a really important part of this job. I try to think of myself acting more like he did, forming relationships with people so we can easily get what we need from each other. For them, it’s the resources and support I can connect them with, and for me, it’s the pieces of the puzzle that they hold to better interrupt transmission.

It helps to have good support

At our office, we identified early that we had to get through this together. There are days that are harder than others but we’re able to foster an environment virtually where we’re all able to vocalize what’s going on during the day. I’ve had to say “hey I’m getting to that point—I need support” and everyone jumps in to help. We have a group conversation going all the time and every hour we encourage each other to get up and move or we show each other photos of our dogs to keep our spirits up.

Not everyone has the bandwidth to be a tracer

The one thing I’ll say is that this isn’t an easy job. I say all the time that my favorite job was when I was a dishwasher I walked in, I saw how much work had to be one and I knew when that work was done. This isn’t like that at all. You can teach someone the skills to be a contact tracer and you can teach someone what to say but that doesn’t mean they’re going to do it in a proficient way and in a way they can maintain. Not everyone can leave the job at the door, but you have to do that. Still, even on the days when I feel exhausted, I find this work empowering. Talking to people brings me joy and energy. To think that I can do this while making a living and helping people is more than I ever imagined.

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