Bay Area officials rushing to recruit and train contact tracers

Tucked away in a small room in Martinez, with a phone and a laptop, Nyala Wright is part of a small army of disease detectives.

Every morning starting at 9 a.m. she picks up the phone and dials up a stranger, introducing herself and explaining her job helping public health officials track down every person in Contra Costa County who's been exposed to the new coronavirus.

"The most cases I've gotten in a day is three. Some calls can take a really long time if there's translation services or other stuff going on," said Wright.
Wright, who worked as a high school health educator before the coronavirus pandemic, was reassigned and retrained to help meet the desperate need for contact tracers.

As the Bay Area loosens restrictions, county health officials are concerned there won't be enough contact tracers to keep up with any increased spread of coronavirus infections.

Dr. Rohan Radhakrishna, the Contra Costa County Deputy Health Officer, says so far they have received reports of 1,300 coronavirus cases. They expect that to increase as more stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. That means a huge need to increase the number of contact tracers quickly.

"Whereas we started with maybe a dozen staff, we're now up to 75 and our aim is to get to 250. That's a combination of redeployed current staff, hiring new staff, and training volunteers," said Dr. Radhakrishna.

Luz Gomez is another county worker who rushed to retrain and join the ranks.

"I had never done anything, and frankly never dreamed that I would be doing anything like this," said Gomez, "I felt that that was where the most help is needed right now to help interrupt the spread of the disease."

Gomez says since she started in April, she has contacted about 25 people. Much of her work is helping them remember who they have contacted, based on the CDC coronavirus guidelines for exposure.

"Have you left the house? Have you been with anyone for more than 15 minutes closer than six feet apart? And we start writing down," said Gomez.

For contact tracers, it is essential to help people figure out how they got the virus and who they might have infected.

"For some people, no I've only been home with my spouse. For other people it's like oh, I went to a house and there were six people there. So now those six people become contacts," said Gomez.

Most important for this job, is having empathy, compassion, a respect for privacy, and the ability to reassure someone who might be hearing for the first time that they've been infected.

"There's been people who have been caught off guard in the moment when I'm telling them their results and so we just take a moment," said Wright.

Dr. Radhakrishna says if you get a call, don't be afraid. The contact tracers' goal is to give people personalized advice and connect people with support services. He says following the public health officials' guidelines is critical to contain the coronavirus infections until a vaccine is developed.

Public health expert Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the United States will need as many as 300,000 contact tracers to help contain any outbreaks. Right now there are reportedly less than 100,000.