I was a COVID-19 contact tracer in New York City and, for a short time, people would unlock their vulnerabilities and allow me into their lives.
I didn’t get into it because it was my dream job, or even because I wanted someone to clap for me at 7 p.m. Like many of my colleagues, I just needed a job. And I just wanted to help in some capacity as a global pandemic devastated my city.
A lot of people think of contact tracers as robo-callers. That they call up COVID-19 cases and say, “Hey, gimme your contacts!” But the answer was almost never, “Screw you” or “Sure, here you go!” Most of the conversations were more nuanced than that.
For one, you often had to tell people for the first time that they had COVID-19. Having to respond with empathy and patience to their reaction instantly dispelled any notion that this was a telemarking-style job.
I educated people about emergency warning signs and when they needed to go to the hospital. I asked them about their symptoms to determine when they were infectious and how long they needed to isolate. I told them about job protections and helped them get letters to give their employers explaining they couldn’t go to work.
I set them up with an isolation hotel so they could separate from loved ones, or with food or medication delivery if they needed it. I had them sent care packages of masks, thermometers, pulse oximeters, hand sanitizer.
And, of course, I also got contact information for anyone who was exposed to them while they were infectious.
My official title was “case investigator” and it did feel like an investigation at times. I would catch someone talking about their roommate early in the conversation and then say, “Nope, I don’t have any contacts.”
But I also witnessed the humanity behind those case numbers ticking up every day.
There were people who took the news of having COVID-19 in stride. Maybe they already knew they were positive and had accepted it. Maybe they were isolating in their second home with all the amenities they needed, or they had no symptoms, and this was like a vacation.
There was some humor, too. People who said they couldn’t smell their cat’s litter box. Or didn’t have to lie about their spouse’s cooking because they couldn’t actually taste it.
Those were the good calls.
But there were people who didn’t take the news so well. Some would sob, and I would try to console this person I just “met” by telling them it wasn’t their fault — that you can be really careful, but it’s just very contagious. That it was OK to cry, and that I wanted to help.
Some were afraid for the people they may have infected unknowingly. I’d try to assure them that we were going to monitor their contacts and make sure they had what they needed to quarantine safely.
There were also moments of extreme kindness — like the people who called their contacts immediately after getting symptoms or test results, just in case, and as a result may have saved lives. There were families carefully caring for elderly relatives to prevent them from getting sick, making sure they were going to appointments, afraid of infecting them, wanting us to check in on them, grateful that we were monitoring.
There were people who felt guilty, because they were trying to be polite and didn’t say anything to that one person they interacted with who wasn’t wearing a mask.
There were instances of extreme bravery, like the adult children of hospitalized patients. They’d spend 30 minutes telling me everywhere their sick parent went, how they think their parent got infected, and all the people who may have been infected as a result. All the while, they didn’t know if they would see that parent again.
Some people were lonely and just wanted to talk. Maybe they were elderly or they lived alone. I would stay on the phone just a little longer to hear their stories, to give them a brief moment of human contact. To let them wish that their spouse of 50 years would come home.
There were people who yelled and vented at me about politics, because they thought I had some direct line to the mayor or governor and could pass along their grievances. They didn’t see that I was on their side, that I’m angry too. That I wanted this virus to stop and it would be easier if they could please calm down and tell me whom they were around when they were infectious.
That didn’t always work.
I had one person roar at me, implying that I was part of a government conspiracy to prevent New Yorkers from going to protests. And there were more than a few references to the “China Virus.”
I ran out of patience some days. I’d wake up and there were 7,000 cases waiting to be called, so when people resisted, I had to flat-out say: “Look, 3,000 people died yesterday and I need your help or this will never stop.”
That worked sometimes.
Others didn’t realize that I was a real person on the other end — that it was hard not to take those stories with me, and the psychological impact is still with me today.
The saddest calls were people who didn’t have emergency contacts when I asked for them. The ones who were truly alone. And those whose only emergency contact was already on a ventilator. I knew we would call them for 10 days but wondered what would happen after that. I wish they knew I cared, or that I still think about them, but I’ll never see their face or speak to them again.
All in all, it took a lot of bravery to open up to me, someone they’d never meet, but people did it every day. I won’t remember their names, and I couldn’t share them even if I did.
I made something close to 1,400 calls in eight months. In my own experience, roughly 3 percent were refusals. For New Yorkers, that’s pretty good.
As cases drop, vaccines are distributed and life hopefully goes back to some sense of normal, we’ll mend and move away from the trauma of COVID-19, especially in New York City. But I will remember these stories of how New Yorkers kept going during the worst of times. That is something worth tracing.
Anita Raman has resumed working in climate research and policy and is currently at Cornell University.