Iowa Contact Tracers Emphasize Compassion and Community Coordination

The Linn County Public Health Department is located in the second largest county in Iowa. As the pandemic surged, the health department rapidly ramped up response staff and dedicated an entire branch to COVID-19 response. There are now more than two dozen staff working on the coronavirus response effort.

“We keep asking individuals to wear masks and practice social distancing for those who are not in your immediate household,” said Heather Meador, clinical branch supervisor at the department. Her team oversees communicable disease investigations and contact tracing. “It was going pretty well in the beginning but now we’re so far into this response, people are tired—they are just not doing it anymore.”

One of the key components of the health department’s response efforts is contact tracing. Al Osterhaus works at the Linn County Public Health Department as a contact tracer with the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps. When the pandemic started, Osterhaus was retired from a career as an investigative pharmacy technician at the University of Utah Medical Center where he worked on drug and therapy studies. He thinks his background allows him to take the information he’s learning and explain in a simple way to clients he works with on how they can protect themselves and their family.

“This virus has isolated us from our families and friends, and unfortunately when you become infected, you’re again suddenly separating from your family unit and there’s some loneliness there,” said Osterhaus.

Michelle Smith, MSN

Al Osterhaus

A sense of isolation among clients is something his colleague Michelle Smith, MSN, a contact tracer with the COVID-19 Corps, has also noticed.

“We are the bearer of bad news, but if you can show empathy and compassion and let them know they are not alone, they really appreciate it,” said Smith. “They are so frustrated, and you have to be their anchor and support system sometimes. It’s not necessarily just about treating the symptoms but also the mental health part of it.”

Smith, who has a background as a family nurse practitioner, was inspired to join the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps because she felt those working on the frontlines of the pandemic needed help.

“Seeing the lack of humanity when COVID-19 hit made me want to volunteer to help in some way,” said Smith. “Working with the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps has presented so many opportunities even beyond contact tracing. I’ve been able to get more information, feedback, guidance and support—everything that you could ask for.”

The addition of Osterhaus and Smith to the health department has been critical to their response efforts, according to Meador.

“Having Michelle and Al here as different recommendations come from state and federal leaders is very helpful as we work to get everything integrated into a cohesive plan and messaging,” said Meador. “With them here we’re able to keep up with our contact tracing and our disease investigations. It would be very hard not to have them here.”

This additional staffing for the Linn County Public Health Department was made possible as part of a $15 million dollar donation by TikTok.

COVID-19 doesn’t care where you live, doesn’t care about your community size, your socioeconomic background, race, gender or religious preference. We all have to do this together.

For Osterhaus, the impact of their work was further demonstrated last August when a derecho, travelling at 100 mph winds, hit Cedar Rapids. The aftermath was devastating, particularly for communities already struggling with coronavirus outbreaks that were suddenly left without shelter, food supplies, power and phone service.

“For the first three or four days, the city had no communications. The governor couldn’t get here because the roads were messed up—it was like a tornado times twelve,” said Osterhaus. “When we were able to reach out to people, we were able to find food and housing for them because of the county resources we had available. It wasn’t just COVID-19 response, it was community response.” This was done along with community partners as part of an existing care coordination system.

As part of their response efforts, the team works closely with Iowa’s Department of Human Services, Department of Inspection and Appeals, and local area education partners to help guide and provide recommendations for childcare, Department of Education and university settings. They have also been working with local nursing homes to help mitigate spread in long-term care facilities and the business community.

For Meador, her mission continues to be getting the proper messaging out to people.

“It’s trying to get that message out to those communities that COVID-19 doesn’t care where you live, doesn’t care about your community size, your socioeconomic background, race, gender or religious preference. We all have to do this together,” said Meador.


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