A Day in the Life: The COVID-19 Contact Tracer

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“It’s really important to hear people and sympathize, to be human. I’m not here to judge – I’m just here to help.”

Nicola Harte has been a nurse since she graduated from BCIT in 2002. “Contact tracing is like detective work,” she says. “You start with a lead, and from there it snowballs until you’ve got a full file on an individual with intimate details about their life. It’s fascinating, yet difficult and must be handled with compassion and discernment.”

Contact tracing isn’t new. It’s a well-established practice in health care systems around the world to track and prevent the spread of everything from measles to tuberculosis. Before the pandemic struck, Nicola was working as a public health nurse, primarily working with families and young children.

Everything changed when the first lockdown happened. Nicola took an emergency reassignment to do COVID-19 testing in a long-term care facility, and saw firsthand the impact this disease was having on our elders.

“I was really struck by the vulnerability of these seniors given the lockdown,” says Nicola, “and how alone they were. It felt really good to be able to go in there and help them, to try and reassure them. Even though we were doing something very unpleasant, we did it in the most compassionate and gentle way possible. But I had this desire to be more front and centre, to be able to help with this pandemic. COVID-19 contact tracing seemed like something I could really sink my teeth into and feel like I was making a difference.”

Digging Deep

Nicola’s day starts with an update from the pod leaders with the latest news on any outbreaks, a summary of cases and a recap of the prior day’s events.

“Then we move onto ‘ADM’, Active Daily Monitoring,” says Nicola. “These are the cases that have already been recorded. We monitor their health and do check-ins, providing support as needed.”

Afterwards comes the big piece ­­— the “CRF”, or Case Referral Form. This is a new COVID-19 case, and where the bulk of Nicola’s work falls into.

“This is the full contact tracing piece you could say,” says Nicola. “It is a full, very long, detailed interview. These can last anywhere from half an hour to an hour and a half or more. This is where I ask where they have been, what they were doing, who they saw, when symptoms started, and working around that information.”

It’s a lot of detail from people that goes into the minituae of their lives.

 

“It can feel quite invasive,” says Nicola. “But this is one of the things I do like about contact tracing, because I get to interact with people and help guide them through an incredibly stressful moment in their lives. In the end, most people are very grateful; they thank us for the work we are doing.”

This piece is incredibly important in order to suppress the spread of COVID-19. Knowing what an infected individual did throughout their time, pinpointing potential spreading events — mapping a person’s life, essentially — in order to intelligently curb the impact is vital to saving lives. On top of all this, Nicola is also navigating the individual’s emotions.

“It’s a science and an art,” adds Nicola. “It’s really important to hear people and sympathize, to be human. I’m not here to judge ­— I’m just here to help.”

At the end of the day, Nicola feels drained yet fulfilled.

“I’m very grateful for our team of contact tracers and our health care teams everywhere,” says Nicola. “I know some nurses who have come out of retirement to help out. There’s this collective effort to do whatever we can in whatever way we can, and it’s been amazing.”

“I can’t wait for this to all be over,” adds Nicola. “I can’t wait to hug people again!”

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