Tracey Papa is at the frontline of helping to stop coronavirus in its tracks. She manages the contact-tracing team at the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District (SESLHD) – the busiest in Australia.
Tracey’s job is to help track down anyone who could spread COVID-19 unwittingly and stop the virus before it gains traction in the wider community. By shutting down coronavirus clusters, they limit the spikes that may lead to many thousands of deaths through viral transmission. (You can read more about Tracey’s contact-tracing work in this Q&A)
Even for a passionate health professional such as Tracey, becoming a leading contact tracer during a deadly viral outbreak is surreal. “It's not every day you’re told, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, you get to lead a team during a pandemic’,” she laughs.
It’s a good thing helping others while keeping a level head comes naturally to Tracey, who is a trained nurse.
“Helping each other creates a sense of camaraderie,” she says. “I mean, you don’t have to help somebody – nobody's obliged to help anybody. Help is about going out of your way and giving your time to help people in whatever instance.
“To me, it's a humanity thing – it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from.”
Helping to save lives
Tracey’s usual role at SESLHD headquarters in Sydney’s Randwick is managing the infectious diseases, immunisation and school vaccination teams. All of that changed with the arrival of COVID-19. With two squads in the health district’s ID team – case managers and contact tracers – her team grew from five casuals to 45 almost overnight.
Although measures such as social distancing and tight border controls have meant Australia has done an incredible job keeping coronavirus outbreaks in check so far, we can’t afford to be complacent. That’s why Tracey and her team deal with a huge workload. They must jump on every person who has tested positive and trace anyone who may have been in contact with them while they might have been infectious.
Tracey runs an around-the-clock operation that rarely ends for her before 10pm. Right now, she doesn’t have much time to indulge in her other passions – painting, golf and ocean swimming. It’s all about keeping the number of infected people – the “epi curve” – under control.
“It's crazy to work in such a high-pressure environment at this time,” she says. “We see the epi curve every day, with the trend going down and down, and think ‘Wow, we were really a big reason for that in the community here’.
“My team is so hard-working – it's unbelievable. We don't want an outbreak. We don't want this virus to go into our own vulnerable population. So we have to try and put our minds to that – we’re helping people from that perspective.”
Help on the frontline
It’s not just the general community who should be grateful for the hard work of contact tracers such as Tracey. Those who test positive often need someone to help them understand what is likely to happen to them and their loved ones.
“I was looking after one case in isolation who was very thankful just to speak to someone,” she says. “He was like, ‘It's so good to hear from you’. It's almost like you're long-lost friends. That feels rewarding.”
To Tracey, help is not just about doing things for others. It’s about offering them your undivided attention. Whether it’s someone testing positive to a deadly virus or a team member, it’s about “giving them what they need for that day”. “I guess,” she says, “I’m just open to helping people.”
She says her family and friends are supportive of the work she’s doing helping others. “They’re like, ‘I don't know how you do it but we're just so glad you're out there helping.’ They say, ‘When they say people are at the front line of the crisis – you guys are the front line.’”