Here's What It's Like To Work As A COVID-19 Contact Tracer In Ontario

It's a side of the pandemic you haven't seen.
COVID-19 Contact Tracing

If you want to be a COVID-19 contact tracer in Ontario, you’ll want to make sure to put “able to navigate through difficult conversations” on your resume.

It can be a tough gig — one that takes a lot of patience and understanding — and it’s not without its own stressors. As Ontario reports 1,837 new COVID-19 cases and 58 more deaths as of Friday, January 29, with 51 confirmed cases of the U.K. variant found in the province to date, contact tracers continue to be super important in the province’s effort to track and stop the source of the spread.

So we asked Scott Cholewa, the operations chief and acting director of the Infectious Diseases Control Division at York Region’s Health Emergency Operations Centre, to take us behind the curtain and tell us what contact tracing is, how it’s done, and what a typical day in the life of a contact tracer looks like.

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How does the rapid notification process work?

“When York Region Public Health (YRPH) is made aware of a case, we make all efforts to contact the case within 24 hours of being notified. This includes calling them, texting them or in some cases, paying a home visit.

Our contact tracing activities are separate from the COVID-19 Alert App. When we are notified of a confirmed case (via a positive COVID-19 lab) our investigation seeks to determine where cases were and who they might have interacted with while they were infectious. Our first priority is reaching these individuals to provide information on their isolation requirements.”

What was the training process for this job like?

“Our training and on-boarding process is a rigorous three-week process for case managers [...] During the calls, the cases and contacts are often fearful, worried, annoyed, anxious and all emotions in between, so staff are trained to be empathetic. But at the same time provide health education and teaching to keep them, their loved ones, and close contacts safe.

Investigations can often reveal sensitive information (for example someone perhaps had a gathering when they shouldn’t) and staff are successful at navigating these tricky situations. Building rapport and trust is a key component of all telephone investigations, regardless of the disease being investigated.”

Have you encountered people who are unwilling to self-isolate?

“Yes, and we have authority to issue orders under the Health Protection and Promotion Act to ensure isolation measures are taken seriously. We are able to issue fines of up to $5,000 per day for individuals not adhering to isolation requirements. Although, we haven’t had to do this so far in the pandemic.

We do conduct home visits from time to time, to check on individuals to ensure they are isolating if we have reason to believe they may not be adhering, or we have been unable to get in touch with them to confirm this.”

How do you identify priority one contacts?

“Contact tracing helps identify the 'close contacts' or ring of people around an infected person and then in turn, stopping these people from passing on the virus to others around them.

Close contacts include people you live with, have had intimate contact with, who have physically cared for you, or that you’ve cared for without adequate protection. Anyone you have visited with, spent time with at work, or that have come to your home and that have come closer than two metres to you during your visit.

Close contacts can also be face-to-face conversations with someone who is not two metres away from you for ten minutes or more.”

Do you feel any additional strains or pressures on the job?

“Contact tracing is quite time consuming but is important public health work that needs to be done regardless of the amount of time it takes.

It can be stressful depending on the individual you are calling, the details of their exposure history and if there are other underlying factors associated with the exposure. Often close contacts are worried about other individuals and family members, so we end up doing a bit of a risk assessment for everyone.”

What advice do you bring home to your friends and family about protecting themselves from COVID-19?

“Stay home as much as possible. If you are out doing essential errands, keep a calendar or journal of places you went and times you were there. If you are seeing people or have close contact with people, keep track of when you saw them, for how long and your level of interaction with them. Should you contract COVID-19, this information will be requested from public health.”

For more information about contact tracing in York Region, please visit york.ca/covid19.

This article’s cover image was used for illustrative purposes only.

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