Contact tracers fight COVID-19 in Summit County one phone call at a time
Normally, physical therapist Lauren Brey treats patients recovering from procedures like knee surgeries by assigning exercises, encouraging successes and helping people back to their ordinary lives.
But in these extraordinary times, Brey was one of 16 Intermountain Healthcare employees asked to support the statewide fight against COVID-19 by becoming a contact tracer, someone who tracks people who have been diagnosed with the disease, or people who have come into close contact with those people.
The job requires sequestering in a confidential spot — for Brey, the upstairs bedroom where she can’t be overheard by her husband and kids downstairs — and making dozens of phone calls to strangers. Contact tracers sometimes deliver the jarring news that people may have come into contact with COVID-19, or that they have tested positive. And they ask personal questions about where a person has been in the previous week, what they have been doing and with whom.
Brey said the hardest part of the job is when she is the first to tell a patient of a positive diagnosis, especially if that person has a complicated medical situation that might make them more susceptible to serious complications.
“It was a scary thing for people who had these comorbidities. As the person on the phone, it’s hard, you know, you sympathize with them,” Brey said. “I had one individual (say), ‘I just don’t want to die.’”
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Brey is not normally required to break the news of a positive diagnosis, but rather to track down the people that someone has been in contact with. A contact is defined as anyone who has been within 6 feet of a person with COVID-19 for more than 10 minutes in the prior seven days.
The system is set up that every contact who has a symptom of COVID-19 can receive a test for the disease. Those who are asymptomatic are advised to quarantine for 14 days.
Brey said her work as a physical therapist had some parallels to being a contact tracer.
“The reality is with contact tracing there is no accountability outside me contacting them. After that, they have to make the decision to do it,” she said. “It’s the same with (physical therapy). We can give people exercise but unless they believe it, what we do in clinic is not going to make any difference.”
But she said that those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 appear to take the guidelines very seriously.
According to data from Intermountain, there are about 1,200 people doing this work around the state, including many who work for local and state health departments.
Stephanie Hurt, a registered nurse who works for Summit County, is another one of them. Normally, she describes her job as taking care of the community in the way that someone might take care of an individual patient — assessing how communicable diseases like STDs or tuberculosis are spreading through the county or helping efforts to stop a potential food poisoning outbreak at a local restaurant.
Her life, too, was changed by the pandemic, as she adapted to become a contact tracer, calling people to help answer their questions and lessen the effects of the deadly disease.
The work of contact tracers like Brey and Hurt has come into focus in recent weeks as the fight against COVID-19 in Summit County has shifted from an initial onslaught to a more managed phase in which officials are targeting known cases and their contacts to stem the disease’s spread.
Hurt said the early days when Summit County was the state’s epicenter of COVID-19 were overwhelming. The information would change constantly, making it hard to reassure patients.
“It was scary, and what was, I think, the most heartbreaking is that people were scared,” she said. “… We had a lot of questions and we didn’t have all the answers. And so (it was) trying to reassure them with what we knew and keeping calm so that they would be calm.”
She and Brey both said they don’t try to scare people with the seriousness of the disease and try to work with people rather than make demands they can’t meet. They’ll ask to make sure the patients have enough food to stay home for an extended period of time, for example, and if there isn’t, work with them to find solutions. If the patient can’t isolate from their family, Brey and Hurt might suggest wearing a mask.
“I find that if I can show compassion for the situation they’re in and for what public health is asking them, that goes a lot further than scare tactics or coming down with an iron fist,” Hurt said. “Most of the time the compassion works.”
Both contact tracers said they don’t react well when they’re out in a public place like a grocery store and see people without masks, characterizing wearing a mask as a move to protect others.
Brey said she’s glad to be part of such a widespread effort to combat the illness.
“I think I will miss (contact tracing) a little bit,” she said. “In some ways, we’re all facing this challenge together and nobody’s left out of that, and being part of that and feeling like I was helping with something that was so universal was a neat experience.”
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