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What I learned as a Contact Tracer

“Hi, my name is Lacey, my representative ID is 915647, and I’m calling with the Community Tracing Collaborative. We work with your local board of health on the COVID-19 response. Just so you know, our call may be monitored for quality and training purposes, but you can let me know if you’d like to opt out of the monitoring. And who am I speaking with today?”

Perks of remote work as a Contact Tracer.
Perks of remote work as a Contact Tracer.

In the momentary pause between my question and their response, my heart rate would accelerate. Each hour of my 6 months of work with Partners in Health, I would roll the dice and choose my fate to speak with a lucky someone who had recently tested positive for COVID-19. Other than their name, date of birth, test date, and Massachusetts city of residence, the caller would be a total stranger to me.

Would they respond to my scripted intro in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Italian, Khmer, or American Sign Language? I had manned calls in all of the above and felt ready for any language they could throw at me.

Would they laud me as a hero from the call’s commencement, approach my questions with mild annoyance, or be outright angry at me for ‘scamming’ them? As the pandemic wore on, I had been mansplained by a 50-year old that all this “equity bullshit” is a Democratic hoax to stop hard-working American from earning a living, scolded by a second-generation Haitian migrant who said her family would ignore my calls because of the racism in my medical system, reproached by a Vietnamese speaker through an interpreter who claimed our phone menu almost killed her, hung up on by an 80-year-old who declared all my damned questions were a waste of her time, and laughed at by a Mexican American teenager who said she would hate her life if she had my job. My skin had toughened to prepare me for anything at this point.

At 6 months into the work, I could almost predict the tone and temperament of my call based on the little information empty case records provided: men aged 18-25 were efficient and madly compliant, mindlessly providing any information I asked:

Me: What’s your address?

Them: 203 Green Street

Me: What’s your date of birth?

Them: July 3rd, 1996

Me: How were you exposed to COVID?

Them: My friend threw had a party last week.

Me: Did you wear masks?

Them: No, ma’am

Me: Did you social distance?

Them: No, ma’am

Me: Can you give me everyone’s phone number from the party?

Them: Yes, ma’am

Me: What else did you do last week?

Them: I went to the barber before the party.

Me: Uh-huh..., Can I have his number, too?

Them: Yes, ma’am

These calls made me loathe my own power. As did drawing foreign-sounding names from Lynn or Salem, which would yield calls that could take hours if I got stuck with the External Language Line but that would likely be free of drama – first-generation migrants often respected and sadly seemed to sometimes fear our calls. But drawing white-sounding women aged 27-35 from my own city of Cambridge were the absolute worst, and I learned to avoid them at all costs. Gazing through the looking glass at my own demographics was rough, not because these women were outright rude, but because they were demanding, and if the answers I provided inconvenienced them, they would challenge my intelligence.

“But that doesn’t make sense,” was often the worst insult they could throw at me when I outlined quarantine guidelines.

“What authority do you even have,” was another jab they would pepper their responses with.

“I just fractured my spine and totaled my car, so you are the least of my concerns,” was the best – and worst snub I had heard. Sometimes their words stung, but in all cases, I felt a far greater pang of empathy.

In any case, at 6 months in and in my final week of work, I thought I had heard it all – until I dialed Wideline*.

As I entered the last hour of my shift on my final Saturday night, I debated even dialing her. I was chancing my fate by taking a call this close to the end of the day, and I had plans to order in pizza that night. But call her, I did, and as I diligently awaited her response to my overused greeting, my heart danced in its typical flutter.

“This is Wideline,” said the voice on the other end. Her speech was slightly slurred, and I couldn’t quite place her accent.

“Hi. Is English best for you, or is there another language that would be better?”

“Oh yeah, English is fine!” she replied sounding halfway offended. Then, “Who are you again?”

More slowly now, I stated, “This is Lacey calling with the COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative. We call everyone who’s recently tested positive or been exposed to COVID-19 and provide some guidance on isolation and quarantine and take down some additional information for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to help them understand the spread of the virus. Our calls usually take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Is now a good time to talk?”

“You do what now? I’m not gonna talk for an hour…”

“Don’t worry, it usually doesn’t take that long, and we can always pick up where we left off another time if needed,” I reassured her, secretly hoping she’d argue back that she’s busy, so I could wrap my calls up early for the day. “It looks like you recently tested positive for COVID-19. So how are you feeling today?”

“I feel fine, fine – I had a cough, but no, I’m fine now. Just hungry. I don’t have food left…”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Would you like me to put in a referral for food? We have people in our organization whose job is to provide support during isolation and quarantine, so if the resources are available, we’re sometimes able to provide them,” I replied.

She paused, then slowly said, “Yeah… that would be good. I’m hungry. And I’ve been waiting…”

“Okay, I’ll put in a referral as soon as we finish our call, and hopefully a Resource Coordinator will call you about the order later tonight or tomorrow.”

“Oh, you can call me anytime,” she said, her speech quickening. “Because I’ve been waiting. I’ve been so hungry.”

“About how many days of food would you say you have left at your home?”

“How many days? I’m hungry now – I’ve been waiting,” she repeated, still accelerating her words.

“Do you have any food left in the house right now?”

“Now? No, I’m hungry, we don’t have nothing to eat,” she stated, her voice beginning to quiver.

“Okay, let me put that referral in right away,” I replied, awakening to the urgency of her request. “Can I call you right back after I’ve made the referral, and we can go through some more information on isolation?”

“Ohhhh, you can call me anytime. You were sent to me from God. I’ve been waiting,” she said, her voice vibrating through the speaker.

“I’m so glad we can help. Is there anything else you think you might need during isolation?”

“I need food – I just need fooooood,” she replied, wailing now.

“Okay, we’re going to do our best – ”

God sent you to me,” she repeated. “My husband – he left this morning – he’s trying to punish me – oahhhhh.”

“Okay, just stay on the line with me. I’m going to see if I can get a Resource Coordinator to join our call,” I said in the most grounded tone I could muster as I frantically typed a HIGH-PRIORITY referral in all caps.

“Oahhhh – he’s doing this to punish me – he knows I can’t drive because I get seizures – oahhhh – ”

“Okay, just stay on the line with me,” I said while typing three more urgent messages across our channels, hoping at least one would yield a timely response.

“Oahhhh – I’m hungry – oahhh – he’s doing this to kill me!”

My eyebrows inched upward, and I suddenly wished I had paid better attention during the 911 protocol videos. “Just stay with me. Are you…” My fingers raced as I silently prayed to Paul Farmer to grant me words to make conversation. “Are you feeling okay?” I heard myself ask and pressed my palm to my forehead at the stupidity of my question but not knowing what else to say.

“I’m okay, my throat is just closing – I just can’t swallow… I’m hungry, and he’s been doing this to punish me, oahhhhh!”

“Okay, I’ve just heard back from one of our Resource Coordinators. It looks like I’m going to have to hang up for them to call you. Are you going to be okay if we call you right back, or do you want me to stay on the call with you longer?”

“Oh, you can call me anytime,” she repeated, her voice restabilizing. “I just need food… some Kentucky Fried – nothing too salty, I have I high pressure and…”

“Okay, I’m going to wait until I hear that they’re about to call you. Just stay on the line.”

“Some potatoes, mashed potatoes – nothing too salty…” she said, her voice trailing off.

“Okay, just stay with me…”


Ten agonizing minutes later, I received a call from the Resource Coordinator who had just been on the phone with Wideline. He asked me to debrief him on what I had heard and said his call was similar in nature.

“I’m happy to help in whatever way I can. My shift ends 7, so just let me know what I can do before then,” I said eyeing the clock and seeing it was 6:48 PM now.

“At 7?” he laughed. “Not tonight, it doesn’t. Tell your supervisor you’re coming in late tomorrow. This case is getting escalated all the way to the top.”

After dutifully signing on late the next morning, I went straight to Teams and saw the outcome of Wideline’s case. A message from the Resource Coordinator read:

“We set 0082453 up with a meal from a restaurant last night, groceries today, shelter at an isolation hotel, and a warm handoff to the domestic violence hotline. Thanks for staying on last night.”

Glancing out the window at the sturdy branches of the oak tree in the yard of my childhood home, I straightened my spine and smiled. After 6 months of working with Partners in Health, I still don’t know whether contact tracing is a “hoax” heavily backed by some “equity bullshit” or an endeavor of modern-day heroes masked behind our computer screens. But if my calls could support one person, it was 6 months well spent.

*Name has been changed.


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