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Voices of Contact Tracers: Supporting NYC in its Greatest Time of Need — Part 2

May 10, 2022

In last week’s Voices of Contact Tracers post, we introduced you to some of the NYC Test & Trace Corps contact tracers who were critical to the city’s efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, this dedicated team provided their fellow New Yorkers with guidance for quarantining and isolating and connected them with medical treatment and a variety of resources, from isolation hotels to free meal delivery to cash assistance, all with the aim of helping them separate safely to protect their loved ones and communities and break chains of COVID-19 transmission.

New York City owes an enormous debt of gratitude to this incredible group of individuals, who were 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 included 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; community engagement specialists, who visited the homes of those who couldn’t be reached by phone; and information gatherers, who supported all of these efforts by conducting research to locate the most hard-to-reach New Yorkers so that Trace could ensure that all of its critical information, resources and support were provided equitably.

This week we are pleased to share more of the stories, in their own words, of these extraordinary New Yorkers who helped our city stem the tide of COVID-19.

Angel Burdick
Case Investigator

I was a contact tracer with the NYC Test & Trace Corps from June 2020 until the program ended in April 2022. If I had to say one thing about my experience it is this: Working at Trace has molded me as a person and challenged me to be the absolute best version of myself in ways I never could have imagined.

Contact tracing during this pandemic meant working from home and, like so many of our fellow New Yorkers, being isolated from the outside world. But this job was never truly done alone. No one would survive it. This job required a team. This job required leadership. And most of all, this job required love. I have been brought to my knees by the kindness of my colleagues. I have been left awestruck by the true leadership and real mentorship of my supervisors. In the face of a frightening unknown, this entire team of people stood up and said, “Yes, we will do this work. Yes, we will walk ahead in the darkest of hours, in the scariest of times, in this unforged territory and try to help the best we can.”

This pandemic was terrifying and I was just as scared as anyone else. But my teammates and I buoyed each other’s spirits and put love in each other’s hearts in unimaginable ways. We supported each other as we dedicated our days to listening to people who were suffering and scared and asking them the hardest questions. And when there were tears on our faces and despondent, aching words in our ears, we were there for all of it — together. In the darkest time I found the brightest people. That means everything to me and I will always be grateful.

I hope we can all go out into the world continuing to serve, made stronger by our experience here. Made stronger because we tried our best to offer light in darkness. I believe the gift we get to walk away with is knowing in our hearts the value of the work we did. Not because someone told us how valuable it is, but because this experience has transformed us. And that is priceless.

Judith Glass
Information Gatherer

Early in the pandemic, while watching the local news in my apartment that felt like a small boat adrift in a deserted post-apocalyptic New York sea, I learned that the City was hiring contact tracers. Impulsively, I applied.

Though I started out as a case investigator, I joined the Information Gathering team when it was launched. And so began almost two years of the intensely rewarding and sometimes frustrating work of tracking the unreachable and reaching the untraceable.

On paper, the role of information gatherer (IG) seems bloodless and clinical, completely removed from the horrors on the front lines of the pandemic. In actuality, however, we IGs were given an extraordinary lens through which to view the arc of the crisis as our work queue waxed and waned, reflecting the numbers of the infected and exposed in real time. There were many months when there were so many thousands of cases needing to be located that the magnitude of the task felt paralyzing. But we continued to methodically work each case with every means available. We were a diverse group of New Yorkers navigating this new way of working remotely, but were able to forge our own community and mutual support system.

Telephoning nursing homes, morgues and emergency rooms day in and day out was a humbling experience. We knew that behind every case reference number was an actual person — often with a private tragedy. Discovering clusters taught us how cruelly COVID-19 targeted the poorest and most vulnerable New Yorkers. And yet the virus could also be democratic — devastating a family of 12 in the Bronx one day and someone living alone in a luxury Manhattan high-rise the next.

I’ve learned many things in my time as an IG with Trace. Here are some I know will stay with me:

  • I can name the correct ZIP code for any NYC address
  • Saying “Please” and “Thank you” while being firm and tenacious will get essential information out of even the most hostile gatekeeper
  • I will never grow accustomed to typing the word “deceased”
  • The innate kindness and strength of New Yorkers, and their deep sense of community

Natia Noble

I’ve been with NYC Test &Trace from the first day it launched. When the pandemic started, I wanted to do something to help, and when the tracing opportunity came, I felt honored but challenged at the same time. It’s been a life-changing journey with lots of ups and downs, but rewarding, and I’m glad that, with our hard work, dedication, patience and compassion, we helped New York get back to normal — or should I say “a new normal.”

So many people I spoke with blessed our program and thanked our hard work. Many of the elderly living alone had the highlight of their day when they got our monitoring calls, giving them hope while fighting this horrible virus.

On my own team we had monitors who dealt with personal battles with COVID-19, tragedy and deaths in their own families, and our huddles were the only space where they could express their feelings, which was comforting and helpful.

It’s sad for my teammates and I that our program is ending, but at the same time, it’s great that cases are low and most New Yorkers are vaccinated. I am grateful to everyone who played a role in this massive citywide effort — each contact tracer, my team and our supervisors. We should be very proud of our work at the frontlines. During unprecedented times we stepped up and delivered, and we did it together.

Howard Ray
Case Investigator

If you had told me at the start of 2020 while I was working as a Pediatric RN in Philadelphia that I would be a contact tracer in New York City, I probably would have laughed at you. I didn’t even know the job existed. One of the most amazing things about New Yorkers, though, is that we come together in an emergency. After moving back to NYC to help my family in May 2020 I wanted to do my part, but in a way that I could keep my loved ones safe. So I was happy to join Trace, where I could assist those affected by COVID and do so remotely.

When the Trace program started, none of us could have predicted how long it would last or the various hats we would be asked to wear. In my time with Trace I worked as a case investigator on the general queue, had a stint in the Situation Room making calls to Department of Education staff and parents of schoolchildren and, most recently, made “continued care” calls to assess if past clients had Long COVID symptoms or needed any resources.

Through all of this, one thing remained the same: how much of a difference we made in the lives of New Yorkers. On all of these calls, we were doing much more than just checking on symptoms and asking for contacts. We were providing a wide variety of services and keeping students and faculty in our city schools safe. Often, we became a listening ear for someone who was scared during their infectious period. Sometimes the calls become personal, as it did for me while making continued care calls. I was able to relate to the clients I called, as I had been (and still am) dealing with Long COVID myself. The satisfaction of connecting clients to services at this time has been incredible, and I’m going to miss it.

But all good things have to end and it’s time to move on to the next chapter of our lives. I have no doubt that all of my fellow contact tracers will make an impact in their next adventure. I want to extend my thanks to everyone throughout Trace for coming together during a challenging time to educate and protect the people of the city we all love.

Alice Kamara
Community Engagement Specialist

I served as a Trace community engagement specialist in the Bronx from June 2020 through April 2022. While most of the contact tracing workforce was remote, in this position, I conducted contact tracing and community outreach in person.

I heard about this job through a family friend and was intrigued by the opportunity. However, because COVID was new, I was concerned. After talking with my family, we agreed that if I was given the proper PPE I would give it a shot. Once I started I quickly began to realize, through the case counts and conversations, that I was doing something meaningful that would impact so many lives in a positive way. It felt good to provide resources and opportunities to people who were suffering not only medically but economically due to COVID.

Although it saddens me to see this project end, I know that I was able to make a difference and help save many lives.

The various partners I had the opportunity to meet and work with were from a number of different backgrounds, which afforded me the opportunity to not only work in a cohesive atmosphere but to learn about other people’s cultures and lives. I bring this point forward because many people will tell you that you learn a lot about a person’s character in hard times. Certainly, at the onset of COVID there was a lot that our clients, staff and medical professionals did not know. Watching my colleagues’ bravery as we tried to figure out the best way to tackle this new ominous frontier was amazing.

Having worked with such diverse groups of individuals, I am thankful for the management and support we received in our efforts. I am also thankful to those who managed Trace and the Community Engagement team as we worked together to stem the tide of COVID-19.