Trained nurse Tracey Papa leads a team of ‘virus detectives’: health staff who track down people who may have come into contact with those testing positive to COVID-19. As public health nurse unit manager at South Eastern Sydney Local Health District in charge of contact tracing, Tracey is at the frontline of keeping future coronavirus outbreaks in check, especially as people spend fewer hours at home and more time working, studying, socialising and travelling on public transport. We asked Tracey what it’s like to be a contact tracer during a deadly pandemic.
Q: What’s the key to a successful contact-tracing program?
A: The most important thing is response time. Once we get notified of a confirmed case, it’s about isolating that person straight away so they're not spreading the virus in the community. Then it’s about speaking to them and identifying and perhaps isolating their close contacts, if necessary. If you jump in and respond as quickly as possible, you can be effective in reducing the number of cases.
Q: What else does your contact-tracing team do?
A: Especially at the start of the pandemic, people got a bit of a shock when they found out they were COVID-19 positive. So, we spent a lot of time counselling them, reassuring them and making sure they have the right support. There's a lot more information out there for them now. If they're isolated, they don’t have someone there watching 24/7, so it's about making sure they know what resources are available and giving them information.
Q: What do you ask people who have returned a positive result?
A: Like a detective, you're making sure you find exactly where they had been on what day, who they were with and for how long. It's really about tracking their day-to-day movements and who they were in contact with over the period they might have been infectious.
Q: What tools do you use to trace contact leads?
A: Usually the phone, and we also have email. We don't have the capacity to physically go out to every [positive] case, but we need to quickly speak to them and pass on information they need.
Q: What’s the job like?
A: Well, you’re chasing people every day. When you get involved in a case, you’re trying to analyse things from every angle. No two cases are the same. Different cases, different scenarios. It's interesting to investigate this or that, or look at different avenues. You’re just like a detective.
Q: Do those people you trace find out the identity of the person who tested positive?
A: It depends. Generally speaking, they know who that close contact is with. It could be someone they live with, for example. But if the person who is positive doesn't want their identity to be disclosed, it's not disclosed.
Q: What if it’s someone who may have been in the same cafe as someone testing positive? What do you recommend they do?
A: It really will depend on how long they were in the same area. Someone who worked there is a different story to someone they sat down with outside and had a coffee. If there was any risk, there’s no doubt we would push to investigate further. In terms of contact tracing, we would find out their circumstances. If they’re symptomatic, we would advise them to isolate and get tested, and not go back to work until their test results come through.
Q: Do you feel your team’s role becomes even more critical as people start to return to work and society begins to open up further?
A: Absolutely. We've put everything in place while cases were reducing – everyone could see what our curve was doing and how it's really dropped dramatically. I commend all public health units, and everyone's done the right thing through measures like social distancing. It’s been a team effort. But no one has a crystal ball of what happens in the next phases of opening up. We have to be ready to go and jump on any cases and trace where they’re from. If we don’t have to, well, that’s a positive.
Read about Tracey’s commitment to helping others here.