‘200-300 calls a day’: How contact tracers work


We barely knew of their existence six months ago, but now we're relying on them to help save our lives.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, contact tracers have become essential in fighting the spread of the wildly infectious disease.

The health professionals, often nurses or environmental health officers, are tasked with tracking down people who have been exposed to COVID-19 and those they've been in close contact with.

The complex job has become exponentially busier in recent weeks following the spike in COVID-19 cases in Brisbane's south side.

Queensland contact tracers Rachel Perry and Deborah Judd, who have both been tracers for years, say they could have never predicted what was coming for them this year.

They share an insight into how they are keeping the state safe and say it's essentially detective work.

Rachel Perry at work as a contact tracer. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Rachel Perry at work as a contact tracer. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

"When we had between five and 10 cases a day, we were making between 200 and 300 calls a day," says Perry, the nurse unit manager of Metro South Public Health Unit.

"That includes calls coming into the unit that we need to respond to as well as calls we are actively making to close contacts.

"When it's a positive case, we can be on the phone for upward of two hours."

Judd, a nurse, says she never knows what a shift will bring.

"We found one case might have one or two close contacts and others may have nearly 100 close contacts and all of those close contacts then need a phone call," says Judd, who has been a contact tracer for six years, previously tracing other diseases like measles, meningococcal and typhoid.

With so many pieces to the puzzle, Judd shares how a busy day unfolds when a positive case has been identified.

"We will be notified by the laboratory that there's been a positive case, when that comes in we are the first person to call those individuals and inform them of their diagnosis," she says. "That's different to what we normally do, given time really does matter here.

Contact tracer Deborah Judd. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Contact tracer Deborah Judd. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

"People can be shocked, upset and we deal with different emotions when we first make that call but we really quickly need to allay their fears and concerns."

Then, the questions begin. The most important of those, Perry says, is finding out when the symptoms first started to appear.

"This helps us to find the infectious period, which is 48 hours before the onset of symptoms, and from there we figure out how far back we need to go to start contact tracing.

"Then we start going into their day-to-day movements … we ask them everything they've done from the minute they wake up; who they were with, how long they were there, who did they speak to and who did they interact with," she says.

Perry says complex cases, usually involving community transmission, could have up to 20 tracers working on it at one time. "It's divide and conquer," she says.

"We will allocate the work, someone might take a workplace, someone might take a shopping centre, someone will look after the case and their family and we go to the phones and start making a lot of phone calls."

One missed question or overlooked person could mean the difference between a city under control or facing peril. Judd says they feel the pressure long after their day is done.

Originally published as '200-300 calls a day': How contact tracers work