By Akanksha Anand, Community Engagement Specialist, NYC Test & Trace Corps
Dates are such an important part of our lives. Remembering friends’ birthdays is almost as important as not forgetting wedding anniversaries. Or worse yet, muddling up the dates of your final exams. You never really know when you wake up in the morning how important that date is going to be to you. May 18, 2020, was the date that changed it all for me.
Being an international student anywhere in the world is a big deal. The perseverance it takes to keep going when you do not have your familiar support network is something that cannot be put into words. When I flew from Hyderabad, India, to JFK on August 10, 2017, I never in my wildest dreams thought that it would be the last time I would see my family for at least four years.
On December 27, 2019, I graduated from John Jay College with a master’s degree in Forensic Mental Health Counseling. My plan was to work as a mental health counselor for children and families in the foster care system. As an international student, graduation day kicked off what is known as an “Optional Practical Training” period, which is another way of saying, “Find someone to employ you within 60 days or book your flight home.”
After numerous rejections and dead ends, my saving grace came in the form of an offer for a job as a contact tracer for the City of New York. On May 18, I was hired as a community engagement specialist (CES) for the NYC Test & Trace Corps. For a huge majority of people, the COVID-19 pandemic was the absolute worst thing that could happen. For me, it was a bittersweet experience. Having a steady source of income while so many others were struggling to make ends meet was an uneasy concept to wrap my head around. It was a similar feeling to those that experience survivor’s guilt. Here I was in relatively good health, earning a steady income while on the other hand there were thousands who lost their lives and jobs to this unexpected and harsh global event.
As one would imagine during a pandemic, contact tracing is usually done remotely. As a CES, however, I’m part of a special team of tracers who do in-person work. Our job is to visit the homes of clients who are unreachable by phone. I wish I could say my first home visit was an amazing experience where the client was truly amenable and glad to have me visit them. Alas, the address of my first visit took me to an empty plot of land whose only inhabitants were a flight of pigeons with severe digestive issues. But that is just a part of the job! The information we receive is only as good as the details that the contacts provide. Sometimes we have visits that go swimmingly, where the client is grateful to have us over since they have not spoken to another human in months. Other times we end up in rickety basements that show no signs of life.
One of my most treasured memories of this past year was an interaction with a young woman in her 20s who, when she had contracted COVID, left her parents’ home to return to her dorm Because they were elderly, she did not want to risk getting them sick as well. When I spoke to her over the phone (we always attempt to contact the client over the phone prior to making a home visit), she sounded disheartened and alone. We spent over 45 minutes talking, during which I asked her all of the required intake questions, but we also spent time just chatting about our favorite television shows and movies. Thankfully, she did not struggle with any symptoms and was able to converse without feeling worn out. We ended the call with a strange sense of distant companionship, like the connection one feels after an earnest conversation with a stranger on the train.
Unfortunately, I’ve also had not-so-great interactions with clients, which is quite understandable. Not everyone is comfortable with answering the kind of personal questions we need to ask, especially when we follow those up by asking for information about people they may have been in contact with.
One such experience was during the early stages of the Accelerated Testing Sites. These testing sites were set up so individuals could get their results in less than an hour. Small groups of contact tracers are deployed to these sites so the client can be interviewed as soon as they test positive. This allows us to gather their contacts in real time.
One woman had come in to get tested because she had been to a family barbecue over the weekend. She tested positive and was extremely cooperative during the intake, providing me with the names of people — the “contacts” in “contact tracing” — who had been there as well She also assured me she would call her contacts herself and let them know they had to get tested, a call to action not required but a commendable responsibility to take on! There were about nine people we had to get in touch with, interview and then ask for the names of those they had been in contact with as well (these are known as “contacts of contacts”).
Everything was running smoothly as I called her contacts until one, whose response was not the friendliest. She was extremely upset upon hearing that someone she’d met had tested positive, which is a completely normal reaction. However, when I told her I could not divulge the name of the person who provided us with her information (which would have violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA), she got terribly upset and voiced her complaints passionately. . Naturally, this rattled me. I did my best to repeat that I could not reveal that information to her, since doing so would actually violate federal law. But at this point, trying to get this message across felt as though I was talking to her with my mic turned off.
After about 15 minutes of trying to defuse the situation and failing, I informed the client that I would let her speak to my supervisor, who thankfully happened to be right next to me. Overall, I would give that day two out of five stars with a warning of “DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. These stunts are performed by trained individuals.”
Kind clients or challenging clients, every day I have spent doing this job has been remarkably edifying. I have had the opportunity to communicate with clients in three out of the four languages I speak. I have had the privilege to put into use the fieldwork skills I learned during my college internships working with individuals with criminal justice histories and severe mental health and substance use issues. Relating to others in times of crisis has helped me grow so much in my understanding of myself. These interactions with every day, relatable New Yorkers showed me there is so much more to New York City than encountering pet iguanas or a perfectly dressed Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid on the subway.
The heart of this city beats in the citizens that choose to get vaccinated for themselves and their loved ones. It beats in the essential workers that keep working through this pandemic to ensure the safety of others. It beats in the soul of Spider-Man at Times Square, who cannot wait for the tourists to flock back, requesting to take pictures with him to reinforce the fact that he is indeed the best Avenger. Whatever date that happens, I’m sure it will be a memorable one for him, just as the past 15 months have been for me.