Q: You were a contact tracer this past summer. Tell me about it.
A: Well, at the end of May I started at the county health department as an environmental health intern, which meant that I did restaurant inspections. The COVID cases in our town were not super bad yet, so it was just kind of chill when I started.
Q: How old are you?
A: I’m 19 years old.
Q: Are all the restaurant inspectors in your town 19 years old?
A: No, they’re all like 30-year-old women.
Q: How did you go from being a restaurant inspector to a contact tracer?
A: There’s a big factory here that employs a lot of Mexican workers, and they started getting COVID in clusters. At that time, the nurses from the health clinic division of the health department did most of the contact tracing. They started calling these workers, and the person would answer, but would be speaking Spanish. Then they tried to send text messages with Google Translate, but people didn’t respond or the return message didn’t translate well.
Nobody in the health department could speak Spanish. I am fluent in Spanish, so I began working as their translator.
Q: What were the phone calls like?
A: I would make sure I was speaking to the right person, then I would tell them, “I’m calling from the health department to inform you of your positive COVID test result.”
Then I ask would ask how they were doing, how their symptoms were. If they did have symptoms, we’d determine their quarantine end date. From the onset of symptoms, they would be quarantined for ten days.
Then we tried to figure out where they got COVID. Most of the time with the Spanish-speakers, they did not want to tell me, because they didn’t want to get in trouble. I kept telling them they wouldn’t, and that we were just trying to protect people.
I think they didn’t know how much authority we had. In reality, we didn’t have any. We couldn’t fine you or punish you unless we got a court order.
Q: So you’re asking people who don’t trust you about who they’ve seen.
A: Yeah. We’d get a list of people they’d been in contact with, and we’d contact them too, because they also needed to be in quarantine.
We called them and sent them work letters if they worked, and then we called their managers, their HR departments, and we had to inform them. I’d say, “This person cannot come back to work because they have COVID or they might develop it in the next fourteen days.”
And the managers sometimes got upset and they made those people to come to work anyway, even though they were in quarantine. But often when that happens, the co-workers would call the health department and report it. Like, “Hey my co-worker just got quarantined, but they’re at work anyway.”
Q: Aren’t they working because they need the money?
A: There’s the “Coronavirus Family First Response Act” that says you can get paid if you’re on quarantine or COVID positive, so they should be getting paid by their employer for that.
I don’t know all the details, but there’s a whole information pack that I would email them. Most of the time I think they would get paid.
Q: This sounds like a crazy time.
A: Yeah. Eventually, the Mexican cases died down then, and I went back to doing restaurant inspections. Then I tore my ACL so I couldn’t do restaurant inspections because I couldn’t walk anywhere.
Right around that time, that the cases in our county started exploding, so they were like, “You can be a contact tracer.”
We went from having maybe six cases a week to having maybe 22 cases a day. My brother got hired, and two of his friends got hired too.
Q: What was your daily life like?
A: I would do four people a day, four cases a day. One day we had 40 cases; it was ridiculous.
The most dramatic thing that happened while I was there was that I had to do contact tracing for these people who were my age. I didn’t know them personally, but they went to the rival high school in my town.
There was this one party that they all attended. Originally I was told there were only two people at the party. Turns out that there were over 30 people there, and we got 15 positive cases from that party.
They lied to me and I had to try to figure out who was there. The kids kept going to work, and we had to shut down businesses and quarantine people who were trying to avoid being quarantined… It was a whole big mess.
Q: That is some drama.
A: Yeah, and the parents of the kids got really upset and sent an angry email to the health department, saying that I was harassing their children. They didn’t like that I was privy to knowledge about their kids. But we were bound by HIPAA; we couldn’t tell people anything, and I wouldn’t, because I didn’t want to lose my job.
I ended up mapping out everyone who went to that party and got COVID, and who went and spread COVID elsewhere, and the newspaper printed it.
Q: With names?
A: No, I changed all the names to numbers.
But it was in the newspaper, on the news, on Facebook. The people were mad. I was just trying to do my job. If we would’ve known from the get-go how many people had been at that party, we could’ve prevented 20 cases of COVID. Twenty.
In total, I got 35 positive cases confirmed out of that party, but we think that there were probably even more.
Q: To create the map, did you use a red string and thumbtacks?
A: Almost. I used a whiteboard with a red marker.
Q: This sounds like a crazy job.
A: Yeah. I got threatened at least once a week. People got so mad. Some people said we were invading their privacy and they were going to sue the health department and they wanted to know my name…
Q: Where did most of the COVID cases come from?
A: We had so many cases from the federal prison. Prisoners and guards alike.
We had to shut down a strip club and send out a press release about it. We had to let people know if they went there in a two-day period that they should get tested.
But most cases were from house parties.
Q: Do you think what you did made a difference?
A: 100 percent. I’m 100 percent sure we kept people from getting COVID. If somebody’s on quarantine, they’re not going to infect people.
Q: If people stopped having house parties would it calm down a lot?
A: If people wore a mask it would calm down a lot.
Q: Why did you leave the job?
A: School started and I couldn’t do both things.
Q: Would you ever do this job again if you had to?
A: Yes. Even though it was very stressful, it was definitely worth it, knowing that I helped people.