Is COVID-19 Contact Tracing Still a Thing? Many COVID-19 Corps Remain on the Case!

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing was all over the news. People from all walks of life jumped at the opportunity to make a difference in public health—and in their own communities. These individuals took a course or received on-the-job training for thousands of available positions in a discipline that wasn’t exactly new but was largely unfamiliar to the general population.

Now contact tracing is part of the vernacular, though the term is far less bandied about. Masking, vaccination and vaccine mandates largely pushed aside contact tracing, isolation and quarantine as COVID-19 buzzwords.

But contact tracing—and contact tracers—remain a vital part of the emergency response, even as job titles and functions evolve. About 100 members of the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps field staff continue to support state, local and tribal health departments as case investigators, contact tracers and communicable disease investigators. All involve some degree of locating and talking to individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 and their contacts, sharing safety protocols and connecting them to community support services.

Christiana Coyle

Carolina Echevarría Torres

Tiffany Griego

Stacy Benson

Most of the work is done by phone—and the calls are not always welcome. Cold-calling strangers who may or may not want to talk to you requires a special set of soft skills that include empathy and compassion.

“When I was training contact tracers, I used to tell them that the position requires you to be a public health professional, but sometimes also a social worker, counselor, advocate or a friend,” said COVID-19 Corps member Christiana Coyle. “I also let staff know that each call will be different, and that one of the most important things you can do is figure out what the person on the other end of the phone needs. That will make your job of building rapport much easier, and it will make the call much more useful to them as well.”

Coyle started with the CDC Foundation as a trainer for incoming contact tracers and case investigators for the Utah Department of Health and is now a regional coordinator overseeing COVID-19 Corps field staff working in a wide variety of disciplines. “I stood in awe of what our contact tracers did every day, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the chance to work with them.”

Contact tracing has been a staple of disease control since the 1920s and in decades since has been used by health departments to slow or stop the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and sexually-transmitted diseases.

Public health connects us all. Through phone calls, I’ve stepped into the homes of Missourians and found that we are all just trying to make it through.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, contact tracing followed well-established protocols, on a much larger scale. Contact tracers shared out hygienic practices, preventive measures and quarantine guidelines to a population blindsided by an unfamiliar disease. As mask recommendations evolved and vaccines became available, contact tracers had even more tangible guidance for people potentially exposed to COVID-19: get vaccinated.

“The biggest change I’ve experienced in my contact tracing work since I started in July of 2020 is that we now have the opportunity to leverage our conversations and outreach to inform potential contacts about the importance of vaccination and help them get vaccinated,” said Carolina Echevarría Torres, one of several contact tracers based at the Puerto Rico Department of Health. “This became the only tangible way for us to see the impact of our work.” She says the biggest challenge has been debunking the spread of disinformation, and the near-impossible task of separating the work from the personal. “I still feel a certain responsibility for my assigned contacts’ wellbeing even after the end of their monitoring period.”

CDC Foundation Regional Coordinator Tiffany Griego was a contact tracer from August 2020 to June 2021. She says it’s important that health departments and the general public be aware of just how tough the job can be. “Being a contact tracer can be emotionally exhausting,” she says, “especially when speaking with individuals who have been hospitalized or lost a family member.”

Stacy Benson, a contact tracer-turned-case investigator supporting the Missouri Department of Health, echoes that sentiment. She describes a recent call—one of thousands she has made over the past year and a half—with a gentleman who had just lost his wife to COVID-19. “I spent over an hour on the phone with him,” she says, choking up at the memory. “They had no children, and he just wanted to talk about their relationship and the lovely person his wife was.”

Benson is one of the many COVID-19 Corps contact tracers who were new to the public health field when she took the job, and now see public health work as a calling. “Public health connects us all,” she says. “Through phone calls, I’ve stepped into the homes of Missourians and found that we are all just trying to make it through.”

While COVID-19 certainly brought contact tracing and case investigation into the public eye, these disciplines will always have a place of import in public health. “The challenge and opportunity now,” says the CDC Foundation’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Lisa Waddell, “rests with leveraging the health education and advocacy experience these COVID-19 Corps members have gained during the pandemic to maintain and build a robust, engaged and prepared public health workforce to help communities confront whatever health challenges may lie ahead.”



This article is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $68,939,536 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government.

Display Date