A day in the life of a COVID-19 contact tracer

'It can be complicated' explains Washtenaw County contact tracer

Contact tracing is considered a critical tool in the fight to contain coronavirus, but what is it like to do the work?

Contact tracing is considered a critical tool in the fight to contain coronavirus, but what is it like to do the work?

While medical staff are working to save lives from COVID-19, it’s the contact tracers who can actually stop the spread.

READ: ‘Answer the phone’: Michigan health officials contacting residents about COVID-19 contact

Local 4 spoke with Dayna Benoit, a contact tracer with the Washtenaw County Health Department, to share what it’s like to do the job that so many are counting on.

“The majority of my day is on the phone,” Benoit said.

Benoit worked as a community health analyst until March, when she was reassigned to be a contact tracer. She thought it would last only a few weeks.

“As the situation unraveled, clearly that was not the case,” Benoit said. “Here we are, many months later, still doing that same work.”

READ: 5 key factors to consider in debate over sending Michigan students back to school this fall

While testing provides information about where the virus is, contact tracing gives information about where it’s going next. Benoit spends her days trying to reach the close contacts of people who have tested positive, checks on their health and asks them to quarantine for 14 days.

“We do occasionally have people that are a little bit grumpy when we call them because it’s not a fun call to get,” Benoit said.

But most people do appreciate their calls.

“It feels really gratifying -- especially when you’re able to talk with someone and they express to you, ‘I’m so glad you called, I was so worried. You answered my questions, and I feel like I know what to do now,‘” Benoit said.

When tracers are unable to reach close contacts, she said it can be upsetting.

“Given the choice, people certainly don’t want to put their friends and family, who they care very much about, they don’t want to put them at any additional risk,” Benoit said. “It is disheartening, and also makes us nervous when people don’t answer the phone.”

As people have started going out more, the exposure sites have changed.

“Those gatherings where there might be a bunch of friends or family together for a barbecue, or some other party in someone’s backyard, things like that. Right now, we’re seeing that those situations are where most of our close contacts are coming from,” Benoit said.

She hasn’t lost any of her assigned contacts, but her colleagues have.

“Hearing that they’ve gotten sick and that they’re not doing OK and then hearing that someone who you’ve been following and checking in on has unfortunately passed away -- That’s heartbreaking and that’s really hard,” Benoit said.

While it’s emotionally exhausting work, she said she’ll keep doing it for as long as she’s needed.

“We truly truly care about the health and well-being of the people that we’re contacting,” Benoit said. “At the end of the day, we do feel like we’re making a difference and that the work we’re doing is really important.”

About the Author:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.