So You Want to Be a Contact Tracer? - Bio-Defense Network
May 2020

So You Want to Be a Contact Tracer?

Tens of thousands of people across the United States have applied for the job of cold-calling strangers who may have been exposed to Covid-19. Here’s what it’s like.

Jacey Fortin writes in the New York Times that when Jessica Jaramillo calls someone to talk about the coronavirus, she usually starts with something like this:

“Hi, my name is Jessica. I’m calling on behalf of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. I’m part of a contact-tracing team, and our job is to reach people who have come into close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with Covid-19.”

(NOTE: Bio-Defense Network is assembling a cadre of public health, nursing and allied health upperclassmen and recent graduates to provide Contact Tracing nationwide. Check our website for details.)

Ms. Jaramillo, 41, a San Francisco Public Library district manager in ordinary times, has made dozens of such calls so far, all in Spanish. She began contact tracing, or “seguimiento de contactos,” this month.

She is one of more than 11,000 people across the United States who are calling people with advice about containing the spread of Covid-19, according to a survey conducted by NPR. (That number has most likely grown since the survey was first conducted in April.)

Estimates for the number of people needed nationwide for contact tracing range from 100,000 to as high as 300,000.

The work is mostly phone-based and can be done from home. The jobs can be full- or part-time, often with an hourly wage of $17 to $25; some include benefits. They differ from one place to the next in part because training and recruiting efforts have largely fallen to state and local governments (and some of the programs have already run into problems, both practical and political).

As communities begin to open up and more people venture outside their homes, the job is expected to become more crucial — and more difficult.

“If you can do contact tracing, you can get ahold of this before it runs through a community like wildfire,” Ms. Jaramillo said. “Then you’re saving someone’s grandmother, or their uncle.”

Taking an ‘old school’ approach

As a public employee who had signed up to be a disaster service worker, Ms. Jaramillo was ready to serve her community in the event of, say, an earthquake. She did not expect a pandemic.

Ms. Jaramillo’s phone conversations unfold according to the needs of the people on the other end of the line. If they need testing for Covid-19, she can refer them for an appointment. If they have symptoms, she might recommend isolation. If they worry about survival in quarantine, she can connect them with food-delivery services.

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