By Drew Davis
Now that our newspaper’s founder George Capsis has been infected with COVID-19, the pandemic has hit close to home. He then got a call out of the blue from the NYC Test & Trace Corps, something any New Yorker can expect after a positive test or recent contact with the virus. Contact tracers in this organization hold an interesting job, spending each day engaging in personal conversations with complete strangers and reaching every corner of the city from makeshift workspaces constructed in their apartments. And they’ve accomplished a lot in the last few months.
Contact tracers speaking more than 40 languages have reached 100,000 people that tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 125,000 people who may have been in contact with someone who was infected. And the work is paying off—96% of contacts in recent weeks report not having left home since being called, according to NYC Health + Hospitals test and trace data metrics and demographic data. To find out exactly who these new public health workers are, I interviewed Jessica Morris from the NYC Test & Trace Corps. See highlights from our conversation below for a look into the reality that she and thousands of other contact tracers have been living in order to keep our city safe.
“We let people know, right off the bat, why we’re calling—putting their health and safety first, then focusing next on helping reduce spread of the virus.”
While the organization as a whole works to slow the pandemic, anyone receiving a call from the NYC Test & Trace Corps should know that the contact tracer’s first priority is your individual wellbeing. Hunting down leads, making intense phone call after intense phone call throughout the working week and weekend to keep up with the pandemic is what it takes to fight an invisible threat that thrives in dense, social environments like ours. That’s what it takes to provide essential resources and information about quarantine and contacting healthcare professionals.
“One of the most impressive parts of the organization is that we do all come from different backgrounds, and back in late April and May, we all said ‘I can shift gears, hop into action, and do this work’.”
Nine months ago, the NYC Test & Trace Corps didn’t exist. When COVID-19 burst into existence, it brought with it a sudden, immense need for contact tracing as quickly as humanly possible. Contact tracers came from all walks of life—Jessica was trained in fine art and architecture—and dropped what they were doing to virtually immerse themselves in the sea of New Yorkers who, knowingly or unknowingly, had been exposed to COVID-19. And that breadth of backgrounds has been so important.
“Having an understanding of the range of people living in New York is so important when doing this work—knowing the diverse and incredibly variously challenged composition of the public.”
Contact tracers face an immediate hurdle. Human evolution, having focused on eating, sleeping, and surviving for eons, turned its attention towards avoiding telemarketers— and unexpected calls from strangers are viewed with suspicion. But to do their job, contact tracers must quickly form a connection with anyone on the other end of the line, as if they’re running into them on the street. The vast diversity of backgrounds in the organization allows them to meet people where they are (metaphorically). Coming into a conversation already aware of the resources and obstacles faced by different types of New Yorkers helps contact tracers lay out feasible plans and advice.
The NYC Test & Trace Corps materialized so quickly because they were built on a foundation that was already there. Thousands of individuals who’ve spent decades working for their communities in a variety of different ways were ready to help. Seeing a need for their specific skills and their knowledge of the myriad different people in this city, this public health force was born overnight. While we do what we can to keep COVID-19 at bay, rest assured that our contact tracers are watching out for us.
Drew Davis has been writing for WestView News for the last year. During the day, he is a medical student.