As rates of COVID-19 infections fall and New York City continues its recovery, Test & Trace Corner is examining the pandemic through the words of the contact tracers who helped bring us to this point
Contact tracers in the NYC Test & Trace Corps come from all walks of life, each one with the same goal: to help control the spread of COVID-19.
In the first installment of the series, “Voices of Test & Trace Corps: Contact Tracers,” Executive Director Dr. Ted Long talks with Case Investigator Ian Manuel about contact tracing and how his unique life experiences have shaped his contributions to the program.
Ian Manuel was 13 years old when he was directed by older juveniles to carry out a robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide offense, and served 18 years in solitary confinement. He won his release in 2016. Ian Manuel is now an advocate for equal justice and the author of the memoir, My Time Will Come.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Long: So, Ian, how did you come to be involved with the Test & Trace Corps as a contact tracer?
Ian Manuel: I had met the mayor at a New York Times event. And we hit it off, man. He told me “Ian, if you ever need anything, anything at all, reach out to me.” The New York Times event that we met at was a book release from a very popular reporter — Nicholas Kristof, to be specific. He wrote a book called Tight Rope and included an entire chapter of his book about me. And so, the mayor heard a little bit of my story at that event, and he was completely moved.
So anyway, fast forward to a couple of months: I was out of a job that was running out of funding. And I said, “You know, the mayor seemed like a pretty good guy. He told me to reach out to him.” So I reached out and that’s how I found out about testing and tracing and it was a job that I was interested in.
Dr. Long: Very cool! So, what was the training like and how did you adjust to being a part of the program?
Ian Manuel: The program training was intense. Everything from the six-hour test you had to take to qualify to be a contact tracer to grueling three to four days per week sessions, listening to all this information. Oh man, it was just so much, and you got to realize that I haven’t been in school for decades. So, it was like cramming for a course. It’s like right now trying to teach your kids to practice or something and you haven’t dealt with practices in decades. It was difficult but it was what I wanted to do, so I made it through the training process.
Dr. Long: You’ve written about your time in solitary confinement in Florida for 18 years, beginning as a teenager and into adulthood. How does that experience inform your work as a contact tracer day to day?
Ian Manuel: I think the easiest way to answer that question is the fact that in prison, it seemed like the mental health staff, the nursing staff, the doctors even had lost that one thing, the main part of medical: the care part. So, when I’m doing my job and reaching out to these people, I try to remember the care part in medical care.
Dr. Long: So, along those lines, what do you think are the most important skills that a contact tracer needs to have?
Ian Manuel: Empathy. You have to have empathy to be able to deal with someone who’s going through a trying time. You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes because we deal with people who’ve come in contact with the virus. We deal with people who are skeptical about us calling them and don’t want to give us their information. So, you have to have empathy and to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Dr. Long: I think that’s well said—it all starts with empathy. Here’s a special question for you: How do you recommend writing as a tool for survivors of difficult experiences, and how does it help with recovery?
Ian Manuel: So, for me, I always say God gives each and every one of us a gift. My gift is the ability to compose words that move people. Another person’s gift might be that they are good with numbers. Another person might be good as a nurturer.
I would say though, for me, yes, writing has been a passageway to healing. But I also think God gives each of every one of us a gift. And your gift is the thing that you do the easiest with the least amount of effort. So, by tapping into that gift that you have, your special ability, and sharing it with the world is also a way to provide and can heal.
Dr. Long: That’s beautifully said. You’re known for sharing poems with your colleagues. Can you share more about your interest in poetry and how you make that a part of your day-to-day work?
Ian Manuel: In prison, I started rewriting some of the poems of the greatest poets in the world. I challenged myself: Tupac, Eminem, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou. I shared these rewrites with my fellow prisoners, and these guys, we’re talking about men that have been broken … and yet my poetry would resound with them in such a way that they couldn’t help but clap. They couldn’t help but kick. They couldn’t help but scream. They couldn’t help but shout. And that let me know that I had a gift that was on another level, which gives me the confidence out here in society to reach people who aren’t going through those things, who aren’t crushed or broken or abandoned.
I think my poetry is just my superpower. It allows me to connect with humanity from all walks of life — white, Black, Chinese, whatever — because people can feel the uniqueness and the universal theme in my poetry.
Dr. Long: I can confirm that it is definitely your superpower! Let’s change gears a little bit: What new impressions do you get of your fellow New Yorkers during the pandemic from your vantage point as a contact tracer?
Ian Manuel: People were scared during the initial wave. It was such a new thing. The world had shut down. No one could adjust to that. Now for me, having spent so many years in solitary, I would try to pick people up and be like, “God, you’re freaking out for nothing. You still have the ability to watch TV. You still have the ability to use your phone. You still have the ability to eat whatever you want to eat.” For example, LeBron James said that winning the [NBA] championship in the bubble was his most difficult championship. And I couldn’t grasp that. I couldn’t grasp how you were in a Disney World hotel on the Disney World campus and that was your hardest championship, brother?
I was trying to calm people’s nerves, but I understood. But I just try to put it in perspective. People aren’t used to being alone with their thoughts. But that’s where the power is at. The power comes within yourself. So, my advice to them was, “Enjoy this, this quiet time, because there’s so much power in it. The pandemic is serious but you could actually find yourself in this quiet time.”
Dr. Long: For all the reasons you just said, we’re so lucky to have had you as one of our contact tracers. We needed you, and we needed your perspective on life. Let me ask you more about that. Are there any interactions that you had with any individuals as a contact tracer that really stuck with you or really made an impression on you?
Ian Manuel: Yeah, there was one case that I remember that was touching, man. It was this homeless person and they were staying with a friend. But then they got in contact with coronavirus. The friend that they were staying with was an old lady so that put them at extra risk of possibly dying. So, the person was freaking out like, “I don’t want to go sleep in the airport. I don’t want to go back to that but I can’t stay here and risk this lady’s life.” And I helped walk her through how to get to a hotel to stay. That’s one good thing that I can actually say that stood out to me during this process. Connecting them with the resources that we had available so they wouldn’t have to sleep in the airport or on the street.
Dr. Long: Well said. I think your example is exactly what’s made us successful as a city. We have you, who can get through to people, and unlike some other places, we have resources we can offer them.
Ian Manuel: Thank you!
Dr. Long: Alright, so what advice do you have for those who might feel hesitant about getting the vaccine?
Ian Manuel: That’s a tough question. The reason it’s a tough question is that I’m one of those people that’s a little hesitant. And I’m a truth-teller. I think though, it’s the research. Do the research. One thing that I’m doing as someone that is hesitant about taking the vaccine is I’m doing my research. But it’s better to go ahead and get it done because eventually, the more people that we get vaccinated, the sooner we can get as close back to normal as possible. So, I would recommend doing it even though I’m one of those people that are hesitant to do it. Even though they say we might not get to herd immunity status, the more people that are vaccinated, it does help drive our numbers down so we can get back to a normal life.
Dr. Long: How do you hope New York City will change for the better as it recovers?
Ian Manuel: My hope is that we learn from this pandemic and not take things for granted. That’s one thing when I was in solitary confinement, I just wanted a cold glass of water. Having to drink water out of this steel sink, it was hot water. I used to recall all the things that I took for granted. I think the pandemic did that to us. Just being able to walk to the movies, to go to the theater. We took things for granted. So, I think that we won’t take the little things for granted anymore and actually appreciate them.
Dr. Long: And actually, I’m going to segue immediately to the last question, which is just an extension of what you were just saying. What are you looking forward to in your life as the virus begins to recede?
Ian Manuel: Oh, great question. I’m looking forward to being able to do in-person book tours. I’ve been doing my virtual book tour and the audiences have been overwhelmingly positive to me. But I’m a performer at heart. At heart, I’m an entertainer and I look to see the crowd. I like to be able to reach people and touch people and know how people come up to me and share how much my poetry moved them. They’re doing that on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, but there’s nothing like that face-to-face interaction that you can have.
Dr. Long: I am excited to get you back out there too, Ian! It is a pleasure, my friend. Thank you so much.