Contact tracers

Bethany Hickey (left) and Anastacia Lee (right) are contact tracers for Gonzaga, while Sierra Pancoast (middle) is resident director working to help students cope in isolation. 

A phone buzzes and an unknown number with a Spokane area code blinks across the screen. A student mindlessly answers the call and is told that they have tested positive for COVID-19 and that they need to prepare to go into isolation. There are many steps behind the curtain which lead up to this moment in time, and contact tracers are at the center of the action.

When hiring contact tracers, Gonzaga University searched for people with public health expertise.  

Bethany Hickey, a contact tracer for Gonzaga, was uniquely qualified for the job specifically due to her work on Benton-Franklin Health District’s COVID-19 response at the community level, as a member of the command staff for its emergency operation center in Tri -Cities, Washington. Prior to working for GU, she worked as the assessment and grant coordinator for her local public health agency Benton-Franklin Health District for three years.

Another contact tracer, Anastacia Lee, finished her master's in public health earlier this year. Previously, she worked at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center for four years.

Contact tracing for a university is unique because of the focus on a smaller subset of the population. For local public health agencies, contact tracers are focused on a larger scope on the community level and have to do it with less resources. Because state and federal funding for public health has been slashed over the last decade, at Hickey’s previous job, they had to use many volunteer contact tracers.

Once the GU contact tracers were onboarded, they all took the Johns Hopkins contact tracing training to make sure that they were all starting off with the same background education on how to do the job.

“Contact tracing is exactly what it sounds like,” Lee said. “You are finding a positive case, and then connecting all of their contacts to that case.”

The job of a contact tracer is essentially to notify, interview and advise people who have been identified as a positive case or close contacts to a positive case.

A close contact is defined as someone who spends 15 minutes or longer within six feet of distance from an individual who tests positive specifically for COVID-19.

Contact tracers have a multitude of pressing duties. Once they are notified of a positive or probable case in the GU community, they make sure that they are taken care of, isolating away from anyone else and reducing exposure, and then reach out to all of their close contacts instructing them on how to quarantine and ensuring they have a safe space to so.

“COVID doesn't abide by an 8 to 5 Monday through Friday schedule, so in this line of work, timing is really important, Hickey said. “When you get that positive, you need to move to get them moved as quickly as possible to limit the spread.”

As a result, their team has had some late nights which is especially hard when you have a family, like Hickey. 

A typical day as a contact tracer for GU has many moving parts. It begins at 8 a.m. when the hotline opens up and their daily team check-in begins. The core group they work with is made up of four contract tracers, their supervisor Taylor Jordan, the COVID-19 coordinator for the university, and her supervisor Kristiana Holmes, the director of Health & Counseling Services.

It varies who reports positive cases to contact tracers. They receive calls either directly or through the hotline from the lab, InCyte Diagnostics, that processes GU’s COVID-19 tests, the athletics department or through Dr. Trevor McCrorey, a physician from Health and Counseling Services.

Each contact tracer has a caseload of students. Every day, they touch base about positive cases which need to be assigned out, and then start their case management pieces. This includes answering any emails or hotline calls that are coming in, and doing daily check-ins for people who are in isolation.

The contact tracing team takes the bulk of calls from parents and guardians who are worried about their student, explaining the reasoning behind the different directives without giving any sort of private medical information to people who are not the student.

Contact tracers call and check in with their assigned students either daily or every other day depending on if they're in quarantine or isolation. Part of the check-in process includes entering notes into their tracking system’s accounts for isolating and quarantining students.

They are also responsible for monitoring a queue of accounts that are flagged from The ZagCheck Self-Screening App.

The general hours for our team are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. However, there is always a contact tracer on call until 9 p.m. every weekday and on weekends from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. They rotate the days they are on call.

Balance is key in order to stay afloat in this fast-paced job.

“You do kind of have to wear many hats in this type of role, but I think the biggest skill I've used in this job that served me well is just the ability to multitask,” Hickey said. “It is important to be able to talk with the student and get the information we need, but also be reassuring and comforting to that student. At the same time, we are getting their move started by emailing the resident director on call.”

Lee relies on a holistic approach when it comes to her job.

“It's not just our team at the university that's working to support these students. We have Housing and Residence Life, the Center for Cura Personalis, everyone at Health and Counseling Services, Plant Services, it’s literally everyone at Gonzaga doing their part to make sure that students can stay here and stay on campus in a safe and supported environment,” Lee said.

The contact tracing team collaborates with residence directors in Housing and Residence Life for daily logistical moves.

For on-campus students, the residence director on call is contacted, and due to the heightened volume of calls related to COVID-19, there is now a secondary residence director on call.

After a student gets a call from a contact tracer that they are positive or a close contact, they are contacted by a residence director who gives them the logistics for moving. Throughout the day, contact tracers send residence directors lists of who they have to move and where they need to move to. To keep track of where a student is moving, residence directors enter a new booking into their reservation system and will check them out of their original room, and then send that information to the contact tracing team.

Residence directors transport students in vans or golf carts from their original dorm and move them to a different residence hall depending on their symptoms. During this process, they are clad in robust personal protecive equipment including masks, shield and a plexiglass divider between the front and the back of the golf cart.

Residence directors help answer needs such as making sure dietary restrictions are noted, students having the correct textbooks and basic supplies in their rooms.

Sierra Pancoast, the residence director for northeast block, said it is important for students to be empathetic toward others because everyone experiences symptoms in a different way and it may not be similar to what one might be personally experiencing. 

Resources are still offered to off-campus students.

“The benefits of a lot of people who live off campus are that they're in households that can be easily divided and in some instances they have roommates who can go out and grocery shop for them if the entire household has not been quarantined,” Lee said.

There has been little pushback from students when they are instructed to isolate or quarantine. In order to return to campus this year, students were asked to take a pledge, stating that they understood the reopening plan and would abide by the public health measures that were set forth.

“Making sure that students are aware of the trickle down effects of their actions has been really useful,” Lee said.

In addition to making sure the quarantine and isolation protocols are followed, contact tracers are constantly serving as an emotional support for students, as they endure the often taxing experience of isolation.

“It’s important to give students some different coping skills for being able to get through the time and trying to reframe it and ask what sort of things they want to get out of this,” Pancoast said.

Helping students set goals for their time in isolation such as self reflection, being academically productive or FaceTiming people, has been beneficial in preventing them from seeing it as a miserable experience and guiding them to see opportunity in it.

“No one wants to go into isolation or quarantine,” Hickey said. “But I think just being empathetic and explaining the reasoning why, has gone a long way to helping students feel like they can be part of the solution. That helps alleviate some of the stress they're having from to move into a facility.”

For students, keeping an open dialogue with their contact tracer is crucial.

“I always tell my students to reach out, if there is literally anything that they need that could be supportive for them," Lee said. “Our job is to contact trace and to make sure that we're keeping the spread down, but we are so committed to making sure that anyone who goes through isolation or quarantine feels supported.”

After the pandemic is over, it's hard to say if universities and agencies are going to see more of a need to have a contact tracing team in place to prevent something like this from happening in the future.

The day-to-day scramble that comes with this job is challenging, but the rewarding aspects often surpass the times of stress.

“My whole life I knew I wanted a job where I felt like I was making a difference in my community,” Hickey said. “I feel like the work I'm doing is helping people, and that's the most rewarding part to me.”

Juliette Carey is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @jujucray.

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