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Monroe County builds an 'army' of COVID-19 contact tracers 

New York efforts to contain the novel coronavirus and reopen the economy rely heavily on so-called contact tracers. Governor Andrew Cuomo said late last month that the state would need “an army” of them to find people who were close to a patient with a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus.

Monroe County is building one.

More than 600 people have signed up here to volunteer as contact tracers, said Aaron Cignarale, who leads their training for the county Public Health Department.
click to enlarge Aaron Cignarale trains a class of volunteer contact tracers at the Monroe County Public Health Department offices recently. - PHOTO BY BRETT DAHLBERG
  • PHOTO BY BRETT DAHLBERG
  • Aaron Cignarale trains a class of volunteer contact tracers at the Monroe County Public Health Department offices recently.
The county has been training these volunteers in groups of about 15. The small classes are necessary because of the need for physical distancing between trainees, the health department said.

One of those people at a training last week was Laura Tuttle. She has a public health degree from Nazareth College but hasn’t gotten a job in that field yet. She said volunteering was a way to keep her skills fresh and contribute to fighting the epidemic.

“In public health, you want everything to always be prevention of a disease, but right now since we’re in this epidemic — pandemic — it’s exciting to be part of the solution,” Tuttle said.

As Cignarale led the class through a set of possible responses from people receiving calls from contact tracers, he stressed the need for empathy.

“This is a call no one wants to get,” Cignarale said. “No one wants to hear, ‘You’ve probably been exposed to COVID-19.’ ”

Some people getting that call will think it’s a death sentence, he said. Others will live with immunocompromised family members or roommates who are vulnerable to the disease.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat anything for you guys,” Cignarale said. “It’s a highly emotional situation. You don’t know what you’re walking into.”
He told the volunteers that he actually hoped the county would never need them — though he conceded that was unlikely.

If the spread of the virus remains slow, Cignarale said the health department’s regular employees would be able to handle the volume of contact tracing. But as the Finger Lakes region begins to open up, he said, the spread is likely to accelerate.

That means not only that the number of cases will likely rise, but also, Cignarale said, tracing them will become more difficult.

When only essential employees were reporting for work, Cignarale said, it was pretty easy to figure out where cases of coronavirus were coming from and where they were spreading. Most people who had been in contact with someone with a positive coronavirus test were not surprised to find out. 
click to enlarge Aaron Cignarale walks a group of contact tracer trainees through some tips for successful conversations with people who have been near someone with a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus. - PHOTO BY BRETT DAHLBERG
  • PHOTO BY BRETT DAHLBERG
  • Aaron Cignarale walks a group of contact tracer trainees through some tips for successful conversations with people who have been near someone with a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus.


Now, Cignarale said, “as the county opens up, that might make it a little bit more difficult, where you might start getting those people again that don’t know that they’re exposed.”

As economic activity resumes, he said, the volunteers will be essential. 

“Contact tracing is the foundation that keeps this whole engine running. Without contact tracing, we’d have no idea who to call, where the possible disease is, and we wouldn’t be able to control the spread of the disease at all.”

County Health Department officials said the agency lacks the budget to pay contact tracers outside of its usual staff, but the state Health Department is hiring for paid positions.

Brett Dahlberg is a health reporter for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY. He can be reached at bdahlberg@wxxi.org.
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