Although is sounds like a new job, contact tracing has always been part of the role of public health workers, says expert
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
While contact tracers — more formally known as disease investigation specialists, case investigators or other titles — have gained the public eye tracking down the contacts of people diagnosed with COVID-19, it’s actually a position that’s long been part of public health.
In many health departments, the specialists track 40 reportable illnesses — things like mumps, rubella, salmonella and the like — to the state health department and also work with people who have sexually transmitted diseases to minimize its spread.
These days, specialists have turned their focus on COVID-19, finding contacts of those who have tested positive, following patients, and supporting patients’ needs.
“This is part of public health’s regular work,” said Jiancheng Huang, public health director at Oswego County Health Department. “We have the public health nurse doing this here in Oswego County.”
Contact tracing isn’t a specific job title during non-pandemic times, but is part of the role of another position. As needs arise, such as a large-scale outbreak, other personnel in the health department who have been cross-trained in these job duties can shift from less urgent work to help in contact tracing and other outbreak-related work.
Because of the pandemic, contact tracer has become a job, as New York state has hired many individuals to perform this work to augment the personnel at health departments.
“Our nurse is swamped and our department is swamped,” Huang said. “The additional help is very helpful.”
Normally, Oswego County has about five people handling this type of work, Huang said.
Those who are ill must stay in isolation for nine days and until they no longer have symptoms. People who have come in contact with the sick person are notified so they can remain in quarantine at home for 14 days. This connection also helps the health department identify a hotspot such as a gathering or business.
The specialist also explains resources from the health department and sets up any supports such as grocery and medication delivery. The specialist follows up with text messages about symptoms and any other questions.
A pandemic-time tracer isn’t necessarily a clinician, though training in community health work or healthcare is helpful.
For Madison County, a BSN-trained public health nurse and a disease specialist perform the tasks related to contact tracing for more routine outbreaks of illness. Like Oswego County, Madison has bolstered the number of workers performing tracing by shifting people from other important but less urgent roles such as educators.
In addition, more staff hired by New York state have also been helping, along with some medical reserve volunteers, like retired nurses and doctors to aid in disease investigation.
Eric Faisst, public health director for Madison County Department of Health, said that currently four to five people are engaged with disease investigation and 28 are doing contact tracing, including staff and volunteers.
“With the travel advisory going on and the anticipation of schools opening up in the fall, we’re taking advantage of the state’s contact tracing program,” Faisst said. “We’ll use a combination of those, our own staff and volunteers.”
He said that although contact tracing has sounded like a new job, it’s always been part of the role of public health workers. For most people performing contact tracing because of the pandemic, on-the-job training suffices. The employees of the health department usually have a medical background, such as bachelor’s in nursing science or a degree in public health.
Faisst listed soft skills for contact tracers as “good interpersonal communication skills as you’re cold calling to say they’ve possibly been exposed to a disease. That’s an art from to interact with people.
“They need good organization and documentation skills.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists “epidemiologist” as the closest job title to the “contact tracer”; however, that’s a position that typically requires a master’s degree. The requirements required for contract tracing depends upon the hiring entity, whether a particular county’s health department for a long-term or short-term position or the state, as it’s hiring temporary workers during the pandemic.