LOUISVILLE, Ky. — If you test positive for the coronavirus you will likely get a phone call from a contact tracer, but you also might get a phone call if a contact tracer learns that you have come in contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive.
Louisville’s contact tracers call 1,200 to 1,700 people per day.
“That’s between positive cases, contacts, you know, their close contacts, and as well as a daily follow up,” said Director of Operations Fata Dzecko of Lacuna Health, a subsidiary of Louisville-based Kindred Healthcare.
The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health & Wellness (LMDPHW) already uses contact tracing for diseases such as tuberculosis or sexually transmitted diseases (STD), but their nine team members couldn't handle everything when the pandemic hit. The department now works with Lacuna Health to manage the largest number of contact tracers in Kentucky.
The team of over 100 contract tracers has one of three roles:
- Disease investigator — Someone responsible for calls to people who test positive for COVID-19 and ask how the person is doing, about their situation at home, and the need to isolate for up to 14 days.
- Contact Tracer — A person that reaches out to other people who come into contact with the positive COVID-19 person.
- Daily Patient Monitor — An individual that checks in daily by phone with everyone in isolation or quarantine to see how they are doing and if they need anything.
Karen Handmaker who oversees Louisville’s COVID-19 contact tracing, said all three roles have intense training through Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. They are trained in not only the science of contact tracing but the art of it, too.
“Some of these calls are lasting well over an hour, and in this field, you’ve got someone who has tested positive; their data has been given to public health; they are receiving a blind phone call from a phone number they don’t recognize. The first activity, and the most important activity, is to build rapport and generate trust in a very brief period of time,” explained Brian Holzer, CEO, Lacuna Health.
Lacuna Health said 40 percent of contact tracers have advanced degrees, like a Master in Public Health to registered nurses.
Diversity is also a priority. Holzer said up to one-third of the contact tracer team members speak another language besides English because it’s important to reflect the communities served.
“In our medical call center business, we try very hard not to turn our nurses into robots, and so it affords opportunity to build trust,” Holzer said. “These are deep conversations with people that are scared and are looking for a far more, in terms of support and comfort and empathy, to navigate what is a very ambiguous situation,” he added.
Uncertainty is scary for many people, so contact tracers also make sure people have the resources to properly isolate and quarantine including a safe place to isolate, getting medical attention, and access to food.
One of the challenges with the job is making initial contact since many people don’t pick up a phone number they don’t recognize. However, Lacuna Health has strategies to jump that hurdle.
“We have sophisticated software that predicts when people are more likely to pick up, but everyone’s different,” Holzer explained.
Another challenge is keeping up with demand. A spike in COVID-19 positive cases means a need to hire more contact tracers.
If a contact tracer ever does call, there are two things you can do:
- Pick-up the phone or call the number back if you get a voicemail.
- If you don’t hear from your local public health department and you are positive for COVID-19, call the department or their COVID-19 helpline.
“So we are happy to talk to everyone but we are also certainly looking forward to the day that contact tracing is out of business for COVID, but we are not anywhere close to that yet,” Handmaker said.
In an emailed statement, LMDPHW said they are bound by HIPAA confidentiality laws. The department said they do not ask for social security numbers, credit cards, immigration status, and it also does not share an individual’s information or identity with law enforcement or immigration officials.
LMDPHW also said they do not use cellphone data or GPS to track anyone.
Lacuna Health said they try and reach someone up to five times in 48 hours. If they can’t make contact then the case is handed over to LMDPHW that takes over the case from there.
If you live in Louisville and have any questions about COVID-19, from what to do while waiting for test results to contacting the department if you are COVID-19 positive and haven’t been contacted by the department, yet, call 502-912-8598. Kentucky’s COVID-19 hotline is 800-722-5725 or you can email KYcovid19@ky.gov for general questions.