LOS ANGELES — Across L.A. County, phones have been ringing off the hook since the pandemic began in March. A team of contact tracers makes thousands of calls each day, and Ilish Pérez is one of them.

“We are calling to ask a few questions,” she said in a pleasant voice, walking us through what a typical interview might sound like.

What You Need To Know

  • Investigation interviews with L.A. County's contact tracers can take anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour

  • Each interviewer can take up to 10 patient cases per day, as they are calling each case plus all of their contacts within 1 day

  • Since the start of pandemic, 179,436 cases have been assigned to interviewers in L.A. County

  • So far, over 13,000 gift cards have been distributed to confirmed cases who have fully completed the interview

Pérez works for the L.A. County Department of Public Health and was previously in the division of HIV and STD programs. In March, her focus pivoted to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She currently works from home using a computer and a script. The questions she asks are triggered by the answers she receives, so the length of the calls vary greatly — ranging anywhere from around 20 minutes to over and hour, depending on how much information the person is willing to give (if they are willing to give it, which isn’t always the case).

“You do have some people where they are, like, kind of worried about giving you certain information,” Pérez said. “But we don’t send it anywhere else. So we never ask for social security or immigration status, or even if they are a citizen or anything like that.”

The interview covers a lot of ground including a section about specific symptoms the person may be experiencing, but the main focus is getting information about anyone the subject may had had close contact with.

“The most important thing that we talk about is exposure,” Pérez said.

It is also the area where contact tracers run into the most reluctance. In July, the L.A. Department of Public Health reported that only around 38 percent of people contacted for a case investigation interview were willing to share information about close contacts.

So the department came up with an incentive: a $20 gift card for anyone who completes the entire interview. The number jumped almost immediately and remains high, at roughly 60 percent as of last week. Since the program’s launch in early August, they’ve distributed over 13,000 gift cards.

Pérez says the incentive is definitely working.

“People are like, ‘Oh yeah! Free money! I’ll go ahead and I’ll answer whatever you want,’” she said with a laugh. “So I think it has helped in the sense of people answering more questions and giving us close contacts.”

Those contacts then get a call as well, usually within a day. Reaching them quickly is of the utmost importance since they may not have any symptoms or know they were potentially exposed.

Sometimes, Pérez says, people are shocked or they want to know who exposed them. “It’s really, really confidential,” she said, adding that they never give out any names or personal details. “We just tell them, ‘There was an exposure and this is what you have to do to try to slow down the spread.’”

For Pérez, that’s the entire purpose of her job: slowing the spread of the virus. She feels she is doing important work but she can only do it with the public’s help. She realizes no one wants to get a call from a contact tracer but she does think everyone wants to do what they can to put an end to COVID-19.

People always want to know what they can do, she explained, and she is happy to give them a short list of helpful actions they can take. “You can wear a mask, you can go ahead and do physical distancing, and you can also take the call from us as well,” she said.

For information on resources available for people who have tested positive for COVID-19, visit the Department of Public Health's website or call 833-540-0473.