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Voices of Contact Tracers: Supporting NYC in its Greatest Time of Need — Part 1

May 2, 2022

The NYC Test & Trace Corps has been a vital resource to New York City throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The Corps’ Trace pillar, the largest citywide contact tracing program in the nation, launched in June 2020 and, by its end in April 2022, had reached more cases than any other jurisdiction reporting these figures. In the course of the program, Trace assisted approximately 1.7 million New Yorkers who had COVID-19, reaching nearly 90% of all reported cases prior to omicron, and identified more than 1.8 million close contacts. And since some New Yorkers were unable to be reached by phone, Trace sent its Community Engagement team to their doors, assisting 250,000 cases and 80,000 contacts in person.

With the advent of the omicron variant in December 2021, the program began using text messaging to reach New Yorkers who had or were exposed to COVID-19. Overall, Trace sent more than 522,000 texts to cases and more than 350,000 to contacts.

Contact tracing was critical to Test & Trace’s efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 in New York City. Contact tracers provided New Yorkers with guidance for quarantining and isolating and connected them with medical treatment and a variety of services from isolation hotels to free meal delivery to cash assistance. These resources provided New Yorkers the opportunity to separate safely to protect their loved ones and communities and break chains of COVID-19 transmission.

Through contact tracing, Test & Trace provided hotel rooms for over 33,000 New Yorkers, 2 million free meal deliveries and myriad other resources to support the city’s residents while they were isolating or quarantining, including dog-walking and emergency rental assistance.

At full capacity, the Trace program employed 4,000 contact tracers from a variety of professional backgrounds who spoke more than 40 languages. Contact tracers hailed from the communities they served, which helped them build trust with the individuals they spoke with and visited at home every day.

Test & Trace couldn’t be prouder of its contact tracing workforce, who provided New Yorkers with not only information and lifesaving resources, but compassion and companionship in times of adversity and loneliness. For individuals living alone, the daily monitoring calls they received were sometimes their only regular connection with the outside world during their isolation or quarantine periods. And for the most isolated New Yorkers, including those Trace was unable to call because they had no working phone, we brought vital information and resources directly to their doorsteps.

New York City owes an enormous debt of gratitude to its contact tracers, who have been on the frontlines of the pandemic wave after wave to support, connect with and comfort those who were sick, fearful and in distress during an unprecedented time in our city.

To celebrate the success of the Trace program and the outstanding work of its contact tracers, we invited them to write about their experiences and share their thoughts on the demanding and vital roles they played in the COVID-10 pandemic. These roles include case investigators, who called those who tested positive for COVID to offer them information and resources and to ask for their close contacts; monitors, who made daily calls to check on and support those who were quarantining or isolating; and community engagement specialists, who visited the homes of New Yorkers who couldn’t be reached by phone so that Trace could ensure that all of its critical information, resources and support were provided equitably. Here, in their own words, are some of the extraordinary New Yorkers who helped our city stem the tide of COVID-19. There are more in store, so please come back next week for more “Voices of Contact Tracers!”

Arryana Duchatelier
Case Investigator

Writing about how being a contact tracer has impacted my life turned out to be a lot harder than I thought — not because I didn’t know what to say, but because I had so much to say. Working for Trace as a case investigator opened my eyes to the way our norms can get flipped on their heads entirely, and taught me about adaptability. In my almost two years at Trace I’ve learned a set of skills that will make me a great candidate in any future job, but on a more personal level I’ve learned so much more.

From the New Yorkers I spoke with daily—those who either had or were exposed to COVID-19 — I’ve learned the importance of simply listening when someone needs a shoulder to cry on or to express frustration. From the pandemic itself, I’ve learned how to be flexible and that everything can change in an instant.

Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And I can say with all confidence that all the people we have assisted, maybe just by listening to them, they may not remember everything that was said word for word, but they were able to walk away feeling heard in a time where it may have felt as though their pain and anger had fallen upon deaf ears.

Since I became a contact tracer in June 2020, I have spent about 4,000 hours speaking to thousands of people. I have to confess that it was hard hearing the pain my fellow New Yorkers had to endure. Listening to them made me realize that their pain was similar to what millions around the world have faced and what some continue to face. Looking back at my time at Trace, I know the work we did meant so much more than I could have ever dreamed. Being a contact tracer made me feel connected to people across the city and enlightened me to their individual stories. It also has reminded me of my importance in society and how we as individuals really can make a difference.

I am grateful to the great supervisors I’ve had, my fellow coworkers that have supported me, and the NYC Test & Trace Corps for granting us this opportunity to give back to our community.

Stephen Reid
Community Engagement Specialist

Working as a community engagement specialist with Trace during the COVID-19 pandemic was quite an eventful, emotional and exciting experience, and one that I learned a lot from.

I started back in June 2020, not really knowing what I was getting myself into, being that it was the first time we had all experienced a pandemic. While I was afraid of being infected with COVID, I knew I wanted to help some way, somehow.

NYC Health + Hospitals gave me that opportunity. Working for Trace allowed me to help my community by engaging the people that have been hurt and dramatically impacted by the pandemic we are still living with today. I have kept the community aware and safe by handing out flyers with information to get tested, and by handing out masks to those that might not be able to afford them or might just have forgotten them at home.

“Community engagement specialist” always had a nice ring to it, I must say. But that’s what it was. As community engagement specialists, we specialized in making the community feel safe in unsafe times. There were many communities that spoke foreign languages where folks were unaware of where to go to get help for themselves or loved ones. My teammates and I had the information and tools needed to provide to our communities so they could feel a sense of comfort.

To know I took part in helping not only my community, not only my city, but to be part of helping break through the COVID pandemic throughout the world means a lot to me. So I want to thank NYC Health + Hospitals and the NYC Test & Trace Corps for bringing out the hero in me.

Lowe-Ann Bonaparte

When I first heard about this job, I thought, “Me? A contact tracer? What does that even entail?”

At the start of the pandemic, I was glued to the TV at home and radio when in my car. It was almost impossible to think that what was happening the world over would spare us. It was just a matter of time. First there was news of a few cases and then the numbers grew exponentially. “Things just got real,” I thought.

Before too long the pandemic had become personal for me. I lost my brother to COVID-19.

I joined Trace as a monitor in June 2020. The job was to call New Yorkers to let them know they had been exposed to COVID-19 and provide quarantine guidance and information about testing and whatever resources they might need to separate from others in order to stop the spread of the virus.

After my training, when it was time to go live, I was excited and nervous at the same time, and eager to make a difference in the lives of New Yorkers.

When I made that first call, I was sweating at the brows as I didn’t know what to expect. “Stick to the script,” I kept saying to myself, “and everything will be okay.”

I asked the clients the necessary questions and relayed information about the resources available. The clients for the most part were very receptive, as we were considered lifesavers, coming to their aid.

They were very scared and concerned about getting COVID-19 and what their next course of action would be. Some clients were tough cookies and very resistant, but I never took it personally. I just kept thinking to myself, “We need to stop the spread of the virus.”

In my time at Trace I’ve had the privilege of being on teams with some of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. We supported each other and that made all the difference. We all shared a common goal: helping to stop the spread of COVID-19 so we can get back to some semblance of normality. After all, that’s what New Yorkers do: look out for each other.