Interview with — Palak Panchal
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor
What is your job?
Contact tracing is a way of identifying and gathering information about symptoms, exposure, travel history, and close contacts of people diagnosed with the Covid virus and other contagious (able to spread to others) diseases.
Close contact includes family members, co-workers, healthcare workers, or anyone in community where the person may have exposed others to the virus.
Health Department workers use contact tracing to help stop the spread of many different kinds of diseases, not just COVID-19.
How do you begin the contact tracing process?
First, we receive cases from the physicians of patients who have tested positive for Covid virus — or other diseases. Then, we rank the cases on how contagious the diseases are. During contact tracing, we work with the patients to help them recall those with whom they have had close interaction.
We also ask contacts to check their symptoms, self-isolate for 14 days from the last day of their exposure to the case, wear a mask, and maintain a social distance of 6 feet or more. If a contact of the patient develops symptoms, he or she is asked to notify public health staff and seek medical attention.
How do you encourage patients to share their information?
When we contact people, we identify ourselves as public health workers and assure them that none of their personal health information will be shared with anyone.
We try to build a rapport (friendship), asking different questions to understand the person's exposure and risk. We educate them on the disease they have, and encourage them to ask us any questions they might have.
Describe a typical workday.
A typical day begins with me checking my e-mail, making a plan to do the high-priority cases first, and then talk about my plan with my supervisor.
In a day, I may investigate at four or five new cases. Each investigation usually takes 30 to 45 minutes. It really depends on whether I’m able to reach the patient and talk with them about their symptoms and exposure history.
Also, I follow up with existing cases if we need more information or have not been able to reach people who may have been exposed. I also answer calls from the public, school staff, or healthcare workers if they have questions or need guidance on COVID-19.
What types of backgrounds do contact tracers have?
The qualifications for a contact tracer vary by local health departments. For example, our department accepts applications from people with at least a high school diploma, and we are looking for people from the communities hit hard by the pandemic.
Training is provided and includes information about COVID-19: its signs and symptoms, incubation and infectious period, testing, and strategies for prevention and control (social distancing, quarantine, and isolation).
Training also includes case-investigation interview, follow-up, and notification techniques, among other resources and instruction.
Talk about some of the skills that contact tracers need.
Contact tracers need to be able to make cold calls to patients and their close contacts. For that, they need good communication skills, empathy (able to understand the other person, and say the right words), and cultural sensitivity to work with a community that has a diverse population.
Some patients or contacts may not trust unknown callers who are asking for their personal information, so you need to know how to make them feel comfortable.
You also have to think on your feet. Patients ask us a lot of different questions, and we need to use our knowledge for different situations that we come across.
What’s the most difficult part of your work?
When we answer many, many calls from the public, schools, and healthcare professionals looking for guidance or information, it is difficult to disconnect after work. Everyone, including family and friends, want to discuss the pandemic because it is in the news.
What do you like best about your job?
I am privileged to work helping on this pandemic. And I enjoy being part of public health, helping people stay safe and prevent the spread of diseases.
I am always learning, and I work with a great team. My coworkers are supportive and bring their own skills and viewpoints.
Working with the local community has been a rewarding experience.
Click on Job Research Lessons. Scroll to Contact Tracer.