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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

'We’re Practically Friends After A Few Days': On The Phone With Vt. Contact Tracers

A woman smiling into a screen with headphones on
Erica Heilman

When a Vermonter tests positive for COVID, it sets into motion a series of calls with the Health Department. First, a notification call, then a conversation with a contact tracer to try and identify all recent close contacts. Contact tracing is part-detective work, part-psychology.

Independent producer Erica Heilman called a tracer in Newport to talk about the job.

Contact tracer: “Is your date of birth 11/16/1969?”

Erica Heilman: “Yes.”

Contact tracer. “All right. Well, today I’m calling in regards to your COVID-19 test you took on [March] 25th.”

Erica Heilman: “Yup.”

Contact tracer: “Were you given the results of that test yet?”

Erica Heilman: “Yes.”

Contact tracer: “So you understand you had tested positive?”

Erica Heilman: “Yes.”

I got a call from a very nice woman last week informing me I had COVID, and then I got a call from a nice man asking me to name everyone I’d been in contact with for longer than 15 minutes in the previous week or so, and did I have their addresses and phone numbers and maybe even their dates of birth. None of this seemed awfully complicated, except that it was. The mix of bad news and illness made it difficult to concentrate, and it was surprisingly hard to recall where I’d been before I showed symptoms.

And I’m an easy case. I don’t really go anywhere. For people with jobs out in the world, or for kids who go to school, this conversation with contact tracers can get complicated very fast. Julie Raboin has been working as a contact tracer for the state since the very beginning of the pandemic. I wanted to know what it was like to spend all day asking personal questions of strangers.

And a quick note before we start, I’m fine. I’m on the mend.

Here’s Julie:

Julie Raboin: “You never know who’s gonna be on the other end of the phone, and what their mood is gonna be, and how sick they are, and how many contacts that they’re gonna to report, and whether they’re gonna feel terrible about infecting other people, or are they gonna be dodgy and not want to share any information.”

Erica Heilman: “In that initial phone call, I wonder if there are certain categories of reaction?”

Julie Raboin: “I think that most often, people answer the phone, and most of the time they’ve already been notified that they’ve tested positive. But there are other times, the notifier, whoever they are, may not have had the chance to call the person yet before I call them. And it’s usually a surprise. Sometimes it’s such an overwhelming sense of guilt, sometimes people just cry.

“And because I do this every day, I think I’m probably a little hardened to people’s reactions and the surprise that they feel. And my sense of humor is something I try to use to put people at ease. But there was this one case where I made the phone call, the gentleman answered, and one of the things I sometimes say to break the ice is, ‘I see that you’ve tested positive for COVID.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s what they tell me.’ And it just sounded like, you know, a usual, stoic Vermonter response that’s supposed to be funny, and so I laughed. And then he said, ‘What the hell is so funny about me having COVID?’ I felt terrible. And it was one of those moments where I realized that, I need to be present every moment, and think about who’s on the other end of the phone and what they might be going through. And that definitely keeps me in check.”

Erica Heilman: “Who are the contact tracers?”

Julie Raboin: ”It’s like everybody, from the most entry level jobs in the Department of Health, up to the deputy commissioner level… have been in the ranks of contact tracers. I remember a moment when I was looking at the list of cases for the day, and it shows who is assigned to that investigation, seeing Tracy Dolan assigned to cases. It’s like, ‘Wow! Tracy Dolan’s doing the same job I am? How cool is that?’ I love the mix of professions and ages and stages of career that makes up the pool of contact tracers.”

More from Vermont Edition: This Middlebury College Student Is Tracking The White House Outbreak From His Dorm Room

Erica Heilman: “There is something sort of STD about all this. You know, the shame of transmission. And so I imagine there’s a little bit of a bridge that has to get built before people start laying out names. Is that true?”

Julie Raboin: “That is absolutely true. Yes. 100%. It’s really tricky, trying to figure out the best approach to get people to relax and trust me and know that I’m not going to do anything harmful to them with the information that they give me. It’s not like giving secrets to the enemy, or that they’re a double agent or some kind of spy. It’s purely for the benefit of all of us that we make sure that people know when they’ve been exposed, so that they can quarantine appropriately and get tested appropriately.

“But getting people to divulge, sometimes I just feel like I’m just not speaking their language in a way where they’re going to let their guard down. And other times, they’re perfectly fine with giving me the names and addresses and the dates of birth, if they have them. I would say probably 70% of people are really helpful in naming their contacts, and probably 10% are really reticent, and very few outright refuse.

“Before I started contact tracing, how many people would be kind and appropriate and helpful, versus how many would just blow me off? I would’ve guessed about 50-50. But now I don’t expect anyone to not be helpful, because my experience is that most people are going to cooperate and take the quarantine and isolation and testing guidance and implement it. I think Vermonters are just overwhelmingly kind and helpful, and want to do the right thing for their family, their community and their state.”

"You never know who’s gonna be on the other end of the phone, and what their mood is gonna be, and how sick they are, and how many contacts that they’re gonna to report, and whether they’re gonna feel terrible about infecting other people, or are they gonna be dodgy and not want to share any information." — Julie Raboin, Health Department contact tracer

Erica Heilman: “Do you dream about family trees?”

Julie Raboin: “I do. I do. When I’m first talking to people, oftentimes I’m making a little map on my note paper, trying to figure out, OK, there’s two parents, are there grandparents? How many children? And then when… oh, it’s especially interesting when there are extended families in different households, and there’s been gatherings and co-mingling between cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, and then a few days after the initial household, I’ll start getting the cases from the cousins and the uncles and the aunts. We’re practically friends after a few days.”

Most days since I was diagnosed, people from the Health Department call me for one reason or another. To check my symptoms, offer me a pulse oximeter, listen to me complain. The people from the Health Department are my new best friends. And my parting, sage advice is, don’t get COVID. But if you do, Vermont is a pretty good place to get it.

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Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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