Hundreds sign up to help Monroe County contact tracing effort
New York state’s efforts to contain the novel coronavirus and reopen the economy rely heavily on contact tracers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said late last month that the state would need “an army” of people to find anyone who was close to a patient with a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus.
In Monroe County, more than 600 people have signed up to volunteer as contact tracers, said the man leading their training, public health department emergency preparedness specialist Aaron Cignarale.
The county has been training these volunteers in groups of about 15. The small classes are necessary because of the need for physical distancing between trainees, the health department said.
One of those people at a training last week was Laura Tuttle. She has a public health degree from Nazareth College but hasn’t gotten a job in that field yet. She said volunteering was a way to keep her skills fresh and contribute to fighting the epidemic.
“In public health, you want everything to always be prevention of a disease, but right now since we’re in this epidemic -- pandemic -- it’s exciting to be part of the solution,” Tuttle said.
As Cignaraleled the class through a set of possible responses from people receiving calls from contact tracers, he stressed the need for empathy.
“This is a call no one wants to get,” Cignaralesaid. “No one wants to hear, ‘You’ve probably been exposed to COVID-19.’ ”
Some people getting that call will think it’s a death sentence, he said. Others will live with immunocompromised family members or roommates who are vulnerable to the disease.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat anything for you guys,” Cignaralesaid. “It’s a highly emotional situation. You don’t know what you’re walking into.”
He told the volunteers that he actually hoped the county would never need them -- though he conceded that was unlikely.
If the spread of the virus remains slow, Cignaralesaid the health department’s regular employees would be able to handle the volume of contact tracing. But as the Finger Lakes region begins to open up, he said, the spread is likely to accelerate.
That means not only that the number of cases will likely rise, but also, Cignaralesaid, tracing them will become more difficult.
When only essential employees were reporting for work, Cignaralesaid, it was pretty easy to figure out where cases of coronavirus were coming from and where they were spreading. Most people who had been in contact with someone with a positive coronavirus test were not surprised to find out.
Now, Cignaralesaid, “as the county opens up, that might make it a little bit more difficult, where you might start getting those people again that don’t know that they’re exposed.”
As economic activity resumes, he said, the volunteers will be essential.
“Contact tracing is the foundation that keeps this whole engine running. Without contact tracing, we’d have no idea who to call, where the possible disease is, and we wouldn’t be able to control the spread of the disease at all.”
The county health department said it lacks the budget to pay contact tracers outside of its usual staff, but the state health department is hiring for paid positions.