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What to Expect When a Contact Tracer Calls You, From a Contact Tracer

Hello World!

I’m sure many of you are dreading the call (or already got a call) saying that you’ve been exposed to COVID-19. For the past six months, I’ve been on the other end of the call. I was a contact tracer with a state’s Department of Public Health! As frightening and irritating as calls from a contact tracer can be, it’s important to listen to these calls. I want to offer some Do’s and Don’ts for contact tracing calls, based on practices and patterns within my state:

DO: Communicate with us!

Please be upfront and honest. If you live with a person who is positive, tell us so we can help you and others stay safe. If you’re not comfortable answering questions, please say so and we will skip the question or explain why we ask it. If you didn’t understand something, ask us to clarify it. If it’s not a good time to call, tell us what would be better and we’ll do our best to accommodate. If you have symptoms or need to go into work, tell us and we’ll help you. And even if you think there’s nothing you can learn from the call, please still talk to us so we can learn from you.

DON’T: Hang up.

I get it. A stranger is calling you and telling you something you don’t want to hear. But hanging up means that you’re missing out on information that will help protect you, your family and your community. Help us to prevent the spread of COVID!

DO: Verify who we are by asking us to verify it.

For security purposes, I won’t give all the ways that we can verify it with you. I will say that government employees all have one thing in common that’s easy to share and is great proof that we are who we say we are. Additionally, at the beginning of the call, we will give you our name and organization.

If your exposure happened at a school or was reported to us by a workplace, you can expect a call from us. It won’t happen every time — unfortunately, there are lots of reasons why we won’t contact you, ranging from us not knowing about the exposure to us just not having enough time to call everyone — but it’s fair to assume you’ll hear from us.

Another method of verification I’ve read about is to ask for an ID number. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what my ID number is. Perhaps other states do this more, but in mine, I did not. Use this one with caution.

DON’T: Verify who we are by quizzing us about you/your kid.

Alright, I’ll be real with you. Typically, a contact tracer will only get a name and phone number. If we’re lucky, we may also get information about where the exposure happened, your workplace/school, or (if the contact is a minor) the parent’s name. But sometimes it’s just a name, or a first name with a number. What this really means is that we were trying to build files as fast as possible to maximize our ability to reach many people, or the person who exposed you doesn’t have enough information or outright refused to tell us. It does not mean that the exposure didn’t happen.

Furthermore, there are certain things we legally cannot tell you. For instance, we can’t tell you who exposed you due to HIPAA laws. When you quiz us on things like this, you’re spending time in which we could be giving you information or talking to someone else. As I once told a contact’s mother who spent 10 minutes quizzing me on her daughter’s information, I could spend 20 minutes trying to find the information that you’re asking for. But I have somewhere between 40-200 people to talk to on a given day. I don’t have time to do that for everyone. If you want to verify that you’re speaking with a real contact tracer, please just ask us to verify who we are.

DO: Set up and maintain your voicemail.

Due to privacy laws, we often have to call you instead of text/email, etc. But that means we only reach you if you pick up the phone. Most of the time, we leave voicemails and hope that you call us back. We might send you a text, if we have time. But if your voicemail isn’t set up or the voicemail box is full, it becomes a lot harder to reach you. Set up and clean your voicemail regularly.

DON’T: Assume the voicemail is fake.

Again, due to privacy laws, we can’t disclose much over a voicemail. In my state, I couldn’t say your name or why I was calling. The voicemail will sound generic. Call us back anyway.

DO: Answer calls from unknown numbers.

If your state has a number that all contact tracers call from, put it in your phone. In my state, each contact tracer called from their own number so that, when you called the number back, you got the same person who called previously. If you’re not sure about answering an unknown number, let it go to voicemail if you know your voicemail is set up, then listen to it and call us back.

DON’T: Ignore or block unknown callers.

If you have an app that blocks people not in your contacts, the chances of us reaching you decreases by a lot. We will try to find another number but by then you may already have developed the virus and have spread it to people. And you won’t know it because you didn’t know you were exposed.

DO: Ask questions about contact tracing, COVID, testing, quarantine, etc

That’s why humans call instead of robots! We’re here to answer your questions, and our information will be more accurate and up-to-date than what you’ll find from talking with a friend or even a Google search.

DON’T: Demand information about the circumstances of your
exposure.

If we’re asked, we will tell you what we know and can legally tell you. But don’t refuse to talk with us because we won’t say who exposed you or don’t know where it happened.

DO: Call us back!

On periods with a small number of cases, we may be able to call you once a day. In other periods, we might only be able to call once. Your best bet of speaking with us is to answer your phone when we first call or call us back.

DON’T: Not call us back.

Enough said.

DO: Tell us if you prefer another language.

We have translators, especially if the language is common in your area! In my state, we had several Spanish translators and a hotline we could call for other languages.

DON’T: Pretend you understand when you don’t.

We are here to help, but we can only do that if we know how.

DO: Answer questions.

We ask a lot of questions. These include but are not limited to your name and its spelling, your date of birth, school/workplace, race, ethnicity, location (my state did county), pre-existing conditions and symptoms. We ask these so that we can learn more about COVID-19 and who it targets so we can prevent future spread and get help to people who need it. All information utilized to find these will be de-identified, so your information remains confidential. You can also decline to answer, but please do. You are helping to protect other people when you answer.

DON’T: Fall for a scam.

A contact tracer will never ask for your financial information, social security number or immigration status. A scammer will. If you hear this, hang up and report it to the Federal Trade Commission, ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

Also note that, at least in my state, we will not send you a text message with links without telling you over the phone that we did so. Personally, I only sent .gov links.

Furthermore, contact tracing is highly encouraged and is often phrased as something that you are required to do, but what we ask is optional. If someone is forcing you to give information after you’ve told them to stop, it might not be real.

Real contact tracing is also free, as is the testing a contact tracer would direct you to. If a “contact tracer” asks for payment, it’s fake.

DO: Participate in symptom monitoring.

This is how we learn more about the disease. Programs like symptom monitoring is why we have three quarantine options instead of one. Participating in these helps people in the future, and it helps us to help you if you do start having symptoms. In my state, we could text or call you, or you could call us. This information is also confidential.

DON’T: Dismiss symptom monitoring.

It’s OK to decline symptom monitoring, but don’t refuse it immediately. Ask more questions, then make an informed choice.

DO: Stay calm and take notes.

I get it. It can be scary and overwhelming, especially if you weren’t expecting it. If you need a moment, take it. We’re happy to wait.

I also recommend taking notes on quarantine dates, symptoms and testing information so it’s readily available. Contact tracers give a lot of information very quickly, so those notes can be helpful later. When applicable, we’ll also give you a link where you can review the information, although it will be generic information not specific to your information.

DON’T: Be a jerk.

We will do our best to deescalate a situation, but there are protections in place to prevent abuse. I know contact tracers who have been threatened with bodily harm by people who later became positive. I’ve been cursed out and sexually and verbally harassed so many times that I now have a list of the most creative insults I’ve gotten. Unfortunately, that person can then spread COVID to more people but, because there are restrictions on who can engage with them, we’re less likely to be able to prevent that spread.

DO: If you’re positive, identify your contacts to the Case Investigator.

A Case Investigator is a special contact tracer who speaks to people who have tested positive. They will ask who you’ve been around since you first started experiencing symptoms and two days prior to that. If you’ve not had symptoms, it’ll be since you tested positive and two days prior. They will ask for name (please know the spelling if possible), their phone number and possibly their date of birth, where the exposure happened and parents’ name(s) if the contact is a minor.

Also, please tell us if the contact is a minor or is deaf/Deaf or has a disability that would make this call difficult for them and suggest someone to call on their behalf.

If possible, please call your contacts first and tell them that they were exposed, on what day, and that a contact tracer will be in touch. It’s likely that you’ll reach them before we do.

DON’T: If you’re positive, refuse to speak with the Case Investigator.

If you do that, then it takes longer for us to reach them, if we can at all. That means the contact is less likely to get help if they need it, and it makes your community more at risk. If you’re concerned that we will out you for being positive, please be aware that contact tracers will not share your identity.

Final Thoughts: 

Lastly, please be aware that I write this from my six months of experience as a contact tracer in my state. Your state may have different procedures, and individual contact tracers do have different styles of talking. Experiences vary. But if you do have a call from a contact tracer, please take the time to protect yourself and others and speak with us.

Getty image via YakobchukOlena

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