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COVID-19 Contact Tracers Still Connecting Infected People With Support, A Year & Thousands Of Anxious Calls Later

Julie Hovland has talked to more people infected with COVID-19 than just about anyone. She’s been a contact tracer for the Winnebago County Health Department for nearly a full year.

A former substitute teacher forced indoors by early lockdowns, she was glued to her TV watching daily COVID briefings from the governor and public health director.

In 2020, the Illinois Department of Public Health awarded $300 million in grants to local health departments for contact tracing. When they announced Illinois would be hiring thousands of contact tracers to help slow the spread, she leapt at the chance.

She says in November, when the pandemic was at its peak in Illinois and over 10,000 new daily cases rolled in, it was a bit overwhelming.

“When volumes were really, really high. We weren't able to call everybody and have them answer and make contact with people.”

Tracers sometimes worked 60-70 hours a week; fielding incoming calls, while also trying to make contact to interview people and hopefully contain the spread of the virus.

“In the very beginning, we often told people their test results because they didn't get them yet. Now it's a more efficient way of getting your results.”

Those can be hard calls when people try in real-time over the phone to unpack the implications of the illness and how it affects them and their families.

That’s when contact tracers like Julie jump in with information, both about the virus and the resources at their disposal if they need help.

Their services include anything from income assistance and grocery delivery to, now, vaccine information. They also ask contacts to participate in text or email monitoring to keep up with their symptoms.

Charity Bolden is another Winnebago County tracer who has been at it since last fall.

“People need letters for their employers, stating that they need to be out of work for a certain amount of time. So, we help with that.”

Both contact tracers say they can count on one hand the number of people who were openly hostile and didn’t want to engage with them at all.

Even though it’s over a year into COVID-19, Bolden says many people they talk to don’t know about thesupport resourcesthey can offer.

“A lot of people I speak with don't know some of the information, especially in the Spanish-speaking communities, just because the resources might not be available to them written or spoken.”

Sometimes there’s still a lot of fear when they talk to people. She says they’re often the only phone call people get while they’re sick.

“There've been a couple of calls that I've made where the person actually was really, really anxious and just needed someone to talk to them. And I think that sometimes we forget that this has been a very isolating thing for people, and it's affected people's mental health as well.”

It’s been a weight on the tracers’ mental health too. But Bolden says getting to educate and share information that could save not only their clients’ lives but the lives of the people around them is enough to keep her going.

“I make a phone call to one person that could connect me to, potentially depending on the situation, 20 more people who have families. It just all kind of webs out.”

Winnebago County’s volume of calls is still far below last fall. However, cases are creeping up in the county because of the Delta variant, as they're rising statewide.

The variant makes tracing more challenging too, since it’s more contagious, and the time from exposure to infection is faster.

Hovland says vaccines have changed the most common ages of people they contact.

“There were a lot more people over 65 that we're interviewing prior to the vaccination,” Hovland said.

Bolden agrees she’s had many more younger people in their 20s and 30s lately. She says they’re usually not scared and just want to know what they need to do.

And whereas in the past they’d talk to a lot of people who are asymptomatic and got tested as a precaution, Hovland says the people they talk to these days have usually known or strongly suspected they had the virus for some time.

“We're now interviewing people that are very symptomatic,” she said.

The pandemic isn’t over, and neither is their mission, though conditions have changed. Some Winnebago County tracers even work in-person in an office now. But as the number of cases continues to go up, and with schools returning next month, it looks like they won’t be out of a job any time soon.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.