KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Elizabeth Mardis feels like she’s making a difference each time she picks up the phone. She normally works as a bilingual customer service specialist at the Johnson County, Kansas, Health Department. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s volunteered to help the department with contact tracing.
“It’s awesome,” Mardis said of her coworkers stepping up. “It’s really great to work with people who want to help and cease the spread of this virus.”
But Mardis and her coworkers have normal job duties to tend to. So the health department is using a staffing agency to hire contact tracers, case investigators and data entry specialists. Twenty new contact tracers are scheduled to begin training next week.
“We need to keep these case counts as low as possible to not have rampant transmission of coronavirus and it really falls on these people who are coming on board to help us with that,” said Elizabeth Holzschuh, the Johnson County Health Department’s epidemiology director.
In Kansas City, Missouri, the health department is hiring. Its director said the department hired roughly 50 contact tracers and hopes to hire another 40 to keep up with demand.
“Some days, if we get over 100 cases reported, it takes some real labor to work through those,” Dr. Rex Archer explained.
Contact tracers generally call people who tested positive for COVID-19 to find out who they’ve been in contact with or who they’ve exposed to the virus. Tracers then call those people to tell them to quarantine and follow procedures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“The job they do is so important, and it’s a difficult job, too. I think maybe there is this misconception it’s an easy job. You just call some people and that’s about it. But it takes a lot of skill. You have to be able to communicate well with people, gain that trust so they feel comfortable giving you that information,” said Elizabeth Groenweghe, the chief epidemiologist at the Unified Government of Wyandotte County Public Health Department.
The Unified Government hired 12 full-time contact tracers. Staff and volunteers from the University of Kansas Medical School make the rest of the calls.
“Usually they start off with maybe a shock when people hear I’m calling because you were in contact with someone who tested positive,” Mardis described a typical phone call. “But we get along really well and they’re really friendly to me. I haven’t had any bad experiences.”
People interested in applying to become a contact tracer in Kansas City need a high school diploma or equivalent and must speak English.