EDINBURG — You may not have heard of contact tracing before COVID-19, but the long-practiced method of finding individuals who have highly infectious diseases and tracking who they’ve come in close contact with is now synonymous with the novel coronavirus.
And for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, there cannot be enough of them scouring the state for the source of infections.
UTRGV has hired and trained about 130 of the 200 COVID-19 contact tracer positions being funded through the Texas Department of State Health Services and is continuing to hire more, according to Chief Medical Officer for UT Health RGV Dr. Michael Dobbs.
DSHS previously announced plans to hire 4,000 contact tracers across the state, 5% of which could be contracted through UTRGV’s program.
Dobbs says there’s a possibility that UTRGV could eventually hire more than 200 tracers and called contact tracing one of the “big weapons” in fighting the pandemic.
“We don’t have a vaccine. We don’t have great treatments. The best way to fight it is to test people so they know they have the disease and contact and isolate the people with whom they’ve had contact,” he said.
Dobbs said that there are different levels in the university’s contact tracing program. Epidemiologists are salaried while regular contact tracers are paid hourly, making about $15 an hour, according to Dobbs.
“Some are contact tracers, some are case investigators who actually work with the infected individual and try to figure out who they might have been exposed to, and also epidemiologists who serve as expert resources and kind of oversee the operation,” he said. “There’s a ratio of about one epidemiologist per 10 tracers.”
Dobbs said that once a positive COVID-19 test is reported to health authorities, it goes into a database and is assigned to a case investigator and contact tracing team who call the infected person.
“They reach out to the infected person, try to figure out who they might have exposed, alert them and try to get everyone to isolate and basically quarantine so that that occurrence of COVID-19 can be basically cocooned and the spread vastly limited,” he said.
So far, Dobbs says UTRGV’s contact tracer force is made up of people pulled from a variety of backgrounds.
Most have bachelors degrees, he says, although some are student workers from the university. Many of the tracers are people with masters degrees or healthcare professionals who find themselves underemployed because of the pandemic.
Dobbs says they’ve even accepted applicants from religious orders to the program.
“These people are very dedicated and really committed to fighting the pandemic,” he said.
Most of UTRGV’s tracers live in Hidalgo County, Dobbs said, although several live in Cameron County and some live in Starr County, or even out of the Valley.
These tracers often find themselves tracing COVID-19 out of South Texas and calling people across the state.
“They might be tracing people in Lubbock or El Paso or Houston,” Dobbs said.
Beatriss Flores, 23, is a UTRGV chemistry graduate and one of the contact tracers hired through the university.
“You’re helping the whole community stay safe, so it’s cool that we’re all working toward that goal of wanting to end this pandemic,” she said.
Flores says the amount of calls she makes daily varies but is sometimes around 15. Some calls are short, others take up to 20 minutes.
“You have to be very empathetic. Patient. Have good communication with your teammates,” she said.
Previously working as a caretaker for her grandfather and as a diabetic cooking teacher helped her develop communication skills, Flores said.
“Teaching diabetic cooking classes is pretty difficult when people don’t want to change their lifestyles, you know, they’re only there because their wives or family members want them to change,” she said. “So you learn how to talk to them and make them understand why it’s important.”
Flores said the program is still new and changes are frequent.
Dobbs said that the administration is adapting to the program too, with burnout being one potential hurdle on the horizon. He said employee turnover in the program is a little higher than he expected, but comparable to the amount of turnover in other part-time jobs.
“The longer that the pandemic goes, the higher risk we’ll have of individuals experiencing burnout and fatigue, stress disorders,” he said. “That’s something that we’re really going to need to think about if the pandemic lasts for a long time.”
Whatever the challenges of developing a massive contact tracing program, Dobbs said, the severity of the pandemic necessitates it.
“We have to do it, because this is our big crisis of the century — at least I hope it is.”