The Rutherford Report—Contact Tracers Stay Busy During Pandemic

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“When you don’t talk, there’s a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said.”

—Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Contact Tracers Stay Busy During Pandemic

If you’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and live in San Bernardino County, you’ve probably heard from a member of the County’s Contact Tracing Team.

They had a load of questions. They asked how you were feeling, inquired about where you had been before you tested positive, sought details about your symptoms, and provided information about how you could keep yourself, your family, and your community safe.

Less than two years ago, contact tracing was a little-known function the County’s Department of Public Health performed to help prevent the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, the team consisted of just 14 contact tracers—a.k.a. communicable disease investigators.

As the pandemic spread and our County’s COVID-19 case count soared, the team grew exponentially. Soon there were scores of contact tracers, including people from various County and State departments that were mostly shuttered by the pandemic.

During the 2020-21 winter surge, the County had more than 440 contact tracers working to help slow the spread of the disease, which has so far claimed the lives of more than 6,000 San Bernardino County residents.

Public Health taught newly deputized contact tracers the nuances of cold calling people and asking them sometimes uncomfortable questions about their symptoms and social outings.

“It does require some skill and tact to talk to people to get good information and do the disease prevention activity we need to do,” Public Health Program Manager Stacey Davis said.

The experience had an emotional impact on many of the newly christened contact tracers. Some of the State employees who participated were so touched they created a kudos message board that was sent to Public Health.

“We also learned how to hold a hand through our headsets when we spoke to the spouse of a hospitalized COVID-19 patient,” one wrote. “We listened to the parent of a teen on a ventilator. And we soothed mourning family members by hearing their stories about loved ones who would not return home.”

"You were always open to our suggestions and any ideas that we may have had to move things forward and to assist our staff in their tasks," wrote another State employee. "The challenges that we all faced demanded versatility and your County took the lead in promoting new concepts. I am happy to have been assigned to your jurisdiction."

San Bernardino County Public Health staff developed workflow charts to guide contact tracers as they gathered information. The charts were so effective other counties adopted them.

In addition to calling people soon after they tested positive, team members also followed up weeks later to see how people were faring.

“We call this our Recovery Investigations, where we follow-up with cases and assess for persistent symptoms—now called COVID long-haulers,” Davis said. “Residents were very surprised and thankful for the follow-up, especially those with symptoms.”
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