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What Makes Somebody an Ideal Contact Tracer?

Contact tracing isn’t as simple as calling somebody on the telephone and asking a few questions. Every day, tracers deal with people who are scared, surprised, confused, uncooperative, maybe even angry. No two conversations are exactly alike.

Successful tracers understand that connecting with people on a human level is essential to gathering information crucial to minimizing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping communities safe. Tracers must be professional and knowledgeable, but also warm and supportive. Establishing comfort and trust is key, as is making sure you’re properly prepared.

For PubSEG, it comes down to finding candidates who possess a combination of empathy and interpersonal communication skills, often paired with public health, nursing, clinical, or social work backgrounds. But every tracer brings their own unique background, skills, and personality to the team.

Nobody understands the challenges—and rewards—of the position better than the tracers themselves. So who better to ask about what contact tracing really entails than a pair of current PubSEG employees?

Kevin Grant is a supervisor for PubSEG with a master’s in public health. He spent four years supporting cancer research at Oregon Health & Science University and has worked for state health departments in Idaho and California.

Harley Super helps manage a team of contact tracers, training them on policy and procedure and providing support throughout their shifts. She formerly worked as a business intelligence data analyst and freelance writer.

Both work on contact tracing projects for multi-campus colleges. 

What are some of your professional skills or personality traits that you believe prepared you for contact tracing?

Kevin: As a supervisor I am very concerned with training and ensuring the success of my team, as well as ensuring that the clients are happy. This means I need to get to work early, understand all tasks thoroughly, and teach the contact tracers in a manner which best suits their learning style. Communication is the key, both within PubSEG and in attaining the goals the clients set. To best fulfill the clients’ wishes, I study the materials they send and then ask for clarification on the finer details and put this into action.  

Harley: People skills are everything. As a former theater kid who couldn’t wait to give speeches in class, I found myself stepping into one customer service-facing job after another, dying to present myself to the world. Being able to meet people where they are, understand how they receive information, and find ways to adapt to their needs is what prepared me to do contact tracing.

In your view, what qualities make somebody an effective contact tracer?

Kevin: The greatest quality in being successful is the desire to be successful while not being dissuaded by mistakes made in the learning curve. Mistakes are a very important part of the learning process, and it’s important not to be overly critical of others. When a project is in its inception, or I am new to a task, it can seem daunting. But any task can be learned and accomplished in time. 

Harley: Empathy is the first step. People want to feel heard and understood, not think you’re calling them to put them on a list. Showing empathy toward your contacts makes them want to cooperate more, offer vital information, and leaves them with a positive experience (and a good opinion of PubSEG!). 

What are some of the biggest challenges contact tracers face?

Kevin: I think understanding the big picture because this takes time. When we first undergo a new task, it’s easy to get bogged down by the trees. In time, the forest comes into view. The big picture for contact tracing is keeping people safe and disease-free. 

Harley: Contact tracers have to be able to adapt to changing guidelines and protocols as they come, as well as prepare themselves for someone who doesn’t want to cooperate. Occasionally you WILL speak to someone who is rude, dismissive, or challenges your knowledge—it’s important to know your facts, and maintain confidence when facing these sorts of challenges.

How do you deal with people who are angry or uncooperative on the phone? 

Kevin: Empathy and patience. No one wants to miss class because they uploaded their second COVID test incorrectly. But explaining that we are doing this to keep people safe helps them understand. 

Harley: It’s important to keep your calm demeanor. Expressing empathy with a phrase like, “I know this is pretty frustrating news,” or “I can’t imagine how tough this is, considering how you’re feeling,” can really turn a conversation around when someone is upset. People want to be treated like people, not numbers on a list of sick folks.

What is the most rewarding part of being a contact tracer? 

Kevin: A strong feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day from successfully tackling the workload and keeping people safe from illness. 

Harley: Getting to talk to great people! I’ve spoken with so many kind people who have shared a laugh with me on the phone, and that truly makes my day. Also, it’s great to be doing something that is helping to keep people safe and healthy! As a team lead, I find that training my team and hearing about the good conversations they have, watching the lightbulb switch on when they overcome an obstacle they’re facing, or even just getting to chat with them throughout the day is endlessly rewarding. You get what you put in with people—clients, fellow employees, and COVID contact cases alike.