Making Connections: COVID-19 Corps Contact Tracers

Paz and Maureen are former nurses, Lillian and Daniel are recent college graduates, Joanne’s back in the workforce after raising a family and Sanford’s been a well-known figure in Chicago public health circles for more than 25 years.

Now they’re bringing their varied backgrounds and talents to bear as members of the COVID-19 Corps, part of the CDC Foundation’s emergency mission to recruit, hire and train teams of public-health workers to act as case investigators and contact tracers for state, local, territorial and tribal health departments. Their mission is to connect with people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19—and the people with whom they’ve been in contact—to provide advice, direction and ongoing support, especially if isolation or quarantine is necessary. The impact on their communities is immense, as is the effect on their own lives.

Paz Ramirez and Lillian Vega

Daniel Jarris

Joanne Denning

“Some people are so alone, they’ll say, I’m so glad you called,” said Joanne Denning, a COVID-19 Corps contact tracer at the Alachua County Florida Department of Health. “For me to be able to say, ‘It’s okay, we’ll help, we’ll make a plan.’ Even if it’s just a voice, for them to know that somebody’s at the end of the line who cares and wants to help. It’s a powerful thing.”

Maureen Hazen, a remote contact tracer with the Arizona Department of Health Services, is a former registered nurse and health-care consultant who’s had to deliver some of the most stressful news that a person can ever receive—that they’ve been exposed to COVID-19. But she’s been pleasantly surprised by the reception she’s received. One of her contacts even said, “‘If I can provide any information that will help other people, ask away.’” Hazen said, “This was my second or third day doing case investigations, and I walked away feeling needed and valuable.”

For Sanford Gaylord, his longtime experience as an HIV advocate and counselor “absolutely positively prepared me” for becoming a lead for the COVID-19 Community Investigation and Contact Tracing Team for the Chicago Department of Public Health. If a contact answers the phone, he says, “they know who this is and they need to be heard.” He’s experienced some of their struggles as well, and that allows him to build a rapport with people in a wide variety of circumstances. “I know how it feels to need to go to work, and how are you going to keep your roof over your head.”

That ability to connect is vital to success as a contact tracer. Lillian Vega is keenly aware of this, and agrees that, “it’s important to gather information while exhibiting compassion.” Vega is a recent graduate with a degree in social work, and says, “This work has been incredibly challenging, personally and professionally. I have had some really tough days. It has also been extremely rewarding. I feel like my work here is making a large-scale difference in protecting public health.”

I don't want to stop. I want to keep doing this kind of work. It is so important, and I get such a sense of peace from it.

Vega and her colleague, retired nurse Paz Ramirez, are both part of the School Response Team at the Houston Health Department. “We’re assigned private and public schools to monitor and research their COVID-19 response plans,” said Ramirez. “Any positive cases that come from our assigned schools, we investigate and enter in the city’s epidemiology database.”

Ramirez spent 29 years as a registered nurse at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, but was reluctant to return to the front lines because she has family members at high-risk for COVID. Contact tracing was a perfect fit: “As a retired person, I feel like I have a purpose again ... making sure the schools that our kids go to are following the CDC guidelines so they can be safe.”

Daniel Jarris’s motivation for joining the COVID-19 Corps as an investigator on the DC Contact Trace Force is equally compelling. “In college, I majored in American Studies with a concentration in race and ethnic studies,” he explains. “Much of this consisted of examining the deep-seated structural inequalities in this country. I saw this as a way I could directly and immediately help communities that are too often neglected by those in positions of power.”

“Contact tracing is very emotionally demanding work,” he acknowledges. “It’s heartbreaking to speak to people who are very sick or scared. It is also very draining to talk to someone who is irate and has no intention of completing an interview. … But most of the conversations I have are actually very uplifting and inspiring. I get to see the strength and resilience of the people of DC.”

Denning agrees, and is even planning a future in public health. “I don't want to stop. I want to keep doing this kind of work. It is so important, and I get such a sense of peace from it. This has made a difference in my life and my future goals.”

Maureen Hazen

Sanford Gaylord

 


This article was supported by Cooperative Agreement number NU38OT000288, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of CDC or the Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC Foundation’s support from CDC included full funding of $45,939,536.86.