My fulfilling job as a 'contact tracer'

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STOCKBRIDGE — I feel honored to have worked as a Massachusetts contact tracer from early May through mid-June. I volunteered to be "laid off" because the project was overstaffed. This is good news and I hope this trend continues. I want to share a little about my experience.

We are fortunate that Massachusetts is being served by Partners in Health (PIH) — a unique organization whose tagline is "injustice has a cure". Its philosophy and values include empowering people; protecting public health; and treating people with compassion, non-judgment and respect. This philosophy is reinforced through training, operations and organizational culture. Still, it took me awhile to believe this was real.

GOLDILOCKS APPROACH

The goal of contact tracing is to reach people as soon as possible if they have tested positive or been exposed to the virus in order to help people understand the importance of isolation or quarantine to reduce its spread. An equally important goal is to support and accompany each individual and household as they navigate their illness, positive test results or exposure to COVID under all sorts of challenging circumstances. I felt like I was always seeking the Goldilocks approach to the job — not to be "too strict" or "too lax." I wanted to support the dual missions of public health protection and empathic support for individuals and households doing the best they can.

These did not always mesh. Mostly, I would say, "my job is to provide you with good information so that you can make good decisions. I want to help you have the resources (testing, medical, food, other) that you need to protect yourselves, family, friends and community." I never felt pressure for "production" or to gather data for the sake of data or get on with the next call.

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One of the first things I heard in training was, "we're flying the plane as we are building it." Change was constant: the computer software was updated frequently; the protocols changed as the health care experts learned more about the virus; and each person I spoke with was different.

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We were not hired only to fill in boxes or collect data, but to help people quarantine and isolate safely to protect family, friends and public health. Not easy! Sharing bathrooms and kitchens, lack of cleaning supplies, not having a doctor or someone to deliver groceries or medicine, not having a "spare bedroom," needing income from their jobs, or fear of losing a job are only a few challenges. The community resource coordinators helped with all of these things and more. And, it is really hard to have the virus and be sick and not know whether you will feel better or worse tomorrow or to be a child and worry about a sick parent or sibling or to be a parent scared for a child. People don't want their loved ones to worry.

Most of us have experienced "the kindness of strangers." I was honored to be the "stranger" that called to say "How are you feeling? Is there anything that you need help with?" I was deeply touched by clients who said "thank you" at the end of a call, with what they were going through. Through interpreters, I had conversations in Laotian, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish. (Yes, many were were skeptical or preferred not to participate. We respected this choice as well).

WIRED TO HELP

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It is a diverse staff — demographically (race, ethnicity, sex, age) and professionally. Most were much younger than me and I loved seeing the talents and spirit of young people beginning their careers. We had different accents, skills, interests, personalities. I know we were hired, to a great extent, because we are wired to help people, including each other.

We were quickly a team, all working remotely by computer. We introduced ourselves, asked questions and helped each other with technology, protocols and challenging situations. We gave and received praise. If I learned something 10 minutes ago, I could now teach a colleague. We shared what inspired us that day or our biggest challenge. In these ways, we found additional meaning in our work and professional relationships.

I learned and received so much during this period. Thank you Partners in Health, Massachusetts Department of Health, Gov. Baker and my colleagues who inspired, supported and appreciated me. And even more so to the people who have the virus and their families for all that they have endured and sacrificed. Readers, I hope this gives you a window into my window on the pandemic.

Laura Dubester came out of 10 years retirement to respond to COVID-19. Formerly she was co-director of the Center for EcoTechnology (CET) for more than 30 years. She currently chairs the Sockbriddge Green Communities Committee.


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