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'Triple-digit days': A day in the life of a contact tracer as COVID cases surge in Pierce County

Youths float atop stand-up paddle boards offshore at Seattle's Alki Beach on July 29. To the south, in Pierce County, large gatherings of young people are causing a surge in COVID-19 cases among people between the ages of 20 to 29 years old.
Elaine Thompson
/
The Associated Press
Youths float atop stand-up paddle boards offshore at Seattle's Alki Beach on July 29. To the south, in Pierce County, large gatherings of young people are causing a surge in COVID-19 cases among people between the ages of 20 to 29 years old.

Right now, there are more than 2,000 contact tracers working across Washington state. Kelsie Lane is one of them.

Contact tracing is a low-tech approach to keeping the virus in check. But it’s only effective if officials have timely test results.

“Hi, Jennifer. This is Kelsie Lane calling from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. The reason I'm calling today is because of your recent COVID-19 test. And I wanted to talk to you about your results and what that means for you. Do you have a couple of minutes?”

Don’t worry. I don’t have COVID. This is just an example of one of those calls.

Lane asks for my date of birth, how I’m feeling and how I’m taking the news. She asks if I’ve been hospitalized. Can I remember who I was in close proximity to over the past several days? And she asks for the names and phone numbers of those people.

Kelsie Lane, a contact tracer with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, sorts through paperwork at the health department building.
Credit Jennifer Wing / KNKX
/
KNKX
Kelsie Lane, a contact tracer with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, sorts through paperwork at the health department building.

During a socially distant interview, with masks, at the health department building, Lane says a legitimate contact tracer will never ask for your financial information. If that happens, it's a scam.

“I think I saw one that said, you know, ‘give us your credit card information and we'll send you a test kit, so you can test yourself.’” Lane said. “We are never going to ask you to send us money so we can send you a test kit so that you can test yourself at home. That won't happen.”

If you have COVID, you’ll be asked to isolate for at least 10 days. This means total isolation: No other people around. You'll need your own bathroom, your own bedroom. Someone will have to bring food to your door.

If you're a contact of someone with COVID, you'll be asked to quarantine for two weeks so you can hang out with your family and roommates, but wear a mask inside and try to keep your distance from others.

All of this is not mandatory. A contact tracer can't make anyone stay home. Lane says the majority of people want to do the right thing, but there are barriers that prevent people from isolating and quarantining.

“I think the biggest one is just work,” she said. “There's so much insecurity surrounding people's employment right now. It's scary.”

The pandemic has shuttered many businesses — workplaces — for months. Some still haven’t reopened, Lane stressed.

“I think the biggest hurdle for people is they want to do the right thing, but they don't want to lose their job,” Lane said. “And they're worried that if they tell an employer that they need to take two weeks off, they're worried about what the repercussions of that might be.”

Lane and her team will write a letter to an employer explaining the situation. And since isolating and quarantining can be a huge inconvenience, health departments like this one have lists of social services. They point people to nonprofits that can help pay rent, food banks that will deliver to your home, programs that help cover the cost of utilities.

And for people who test positive who can't isolate where they live or who don't have a home, there's a COVID motel or a temporary care center in South Tacoma where they can ride out their illness and be fed three meals a day.

Lately, contact tracers in Pierce County are making a lot more phone calls seven days a week.

“Recently, we've seen a lot of triple-digit days. A lot of days with 100 cases or more. And it's a bummer. I mean, there's no other way to put it,” Lane said. “It's sad to have that many cases come through. It does create a bit of a bottleneck, trying to get through all these cases and ensure that we're talking to them in a timely fashion so we can provide them with appropriate isolation, guidance for the cases themselves and then reach out to the contacts in time to talk about their quarantine periods.”

Lane added that delays from backed-up labs have caused results to come in a few days later than what health department officials would like to see them. “It just creates the issue of sometimes, you know, we don't receive reports of a case until somebody’s isolation period is almost over.”

A form contact tracers use as they call COVID-positive people and those who have come in contact with them.
Credit Jennifer Wing / KNKX
/
KNKX
A form contact tracers use as they call COVID-positive people and those who have come in contact with them.

Pierce County’s surge in cases is among people between the ages of 20 to 29 years old who are gathering in large numbers. Lane says this age group in particular doesn't always want to answer all of the questions contact tracers ask, and they don't always want to provide information on their close contacts. This is contributing to the growing percentage of cases in this demographic — a demographic that isn't as likely to get very sick, but can spread it to people who are more vulnerable.

“They can spread it to our elderly population are immunocompromised population,” Lane said. “So we're seeing gatherings of people where they tell us that there was over 100 people. You know, they don't know all those people's names. The contact tracing aspect of trying to contact trace a party like that, it can be impossible sometimes because they don't have that information. Then we start getting more phone calls from people or more cases from people that went to that party.”

Lane says some of these younger people are being lulled into feeling safe because they’re gathering outside.

“But think of like a barbecue. When I go to a barbecue, I hang out by the food. I spend my time milling about near the food. I don't always practice the best hygiene when I'm snacking. I might lick my fingers and then grab another handful of chips,” Lane said. “They might be lulled into a false sense of security because they're outside. But at the end of the day, it's still a gathering where people's inhibitions get a little bit lowered and they're excited to see their friends they haven't seen in a while.”

Lane stressed that being outside is better than the alternative, but gathering in such large groups is still a huge risk.

On warm, sunny afternoons driving home from work along Ruston Way, Lane says she sees these gatherings outside her car window. She says the docks are packed with young people enjoying the summer weather — and also, possibly, transmitting COVID-19.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.