Franklin County Health Department Director Angie Hittson

Imagine coming into work every day knowing you have to call 50 people to tell them that they have been exposed to the coronavirus.

That’s how 10 people working as contact tracers for the Franklin County Health Department (FCHD) have spent their days for the past several weeks.

Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker said the response to the tracers’ calls is a mixed bag of emotions from disbelief to outright hostility.

“Despite the rough road, the contact tracers are making a difference in slowing the virus spread,” Brinker said. “Hats off to them.”

Brinker said the county has hired six contact tracers at $16 an hour using CARES funds from the federal government. They join four full-time health department employees who also are tasked with making calls.

“Our tracers have been forced into volatile situations and have to explain they are doing it for all the right reasons,” Brinker said. “They aren’t calling because they want to, but because they have to keep everybody safe.”

The Missourian asked to speak to a contact tracer, but was told by the county they did not want to take a tracer away from calls. Health Department Director Angie Hittson provided written answers to The Missourian’s questions instead.

What is the hardest part of calling people each day telling them they have been exposed?

“Not knowing what is going to greet you on the other end of the line,” Hittson said. “Will the caller be angry? Will they be understanding? Will they hang up?”

Hittson said the tracers understand that most people are not happy to get a call from the health department and being in quarantine is tough.

“The length of the quarantines can be surprising to some people,” Hittson said. “Hearing them process while on the phone all the things in their lives that will be affected, such as work, school, ability to pay bills, is hard.”

Is the call a surprise to them?

“This is a toss up,” Hittson said. “Many have been contacted by the close personal contact to make them aware they were exposed. Others are not and, then yes, they are certainly surprised.”  

How often does the call turn hostile or uncooperative? Do they hang up?

“Generally, people are grateful to be provided definitive guidelines and have questions answered,” Hittson said. “A few have been unhappy due to the length of quarantine or they try and come up with their own set of facts.”  

Hittson said the ones who are hostile are very hostile and resort to name calling, threats and hang-ups.  

“This number does seem to be growing,” Hittson said. “I’ve had people tell me that their place of employment doesn’t want them to give the health department any information, which feels disturbing.”  

How many calls do you make in an average day?

“It depends on the length of time I’m in the office, but I could be on the phone nonstop all day long,” Hittson said. “It also depends on the depth of the cases. I’ve made more than 50 calls today before noon. Some days 20-50 total.”

How long does an average call take?

Hittson said call length is dependent on how many people they can get in contact with, how many questions they have, if they were previously notified by the infected person, where they work and how many questions need to be addressed.

“Some calls take five to seven minutes, others take 15 minutes or longer,” Hittson said. “Many are on the higher end. With every call we have to notify  the close contact, answer questions, provide education and resources.”  

What questions are you asking? Are you able to make easy contact?

“Calling contacts can be difficult because they may not realize that they’ve been in contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive, and we can’t share specifics other than the date of contact,” Hittson said. “Those calls can be overwhelming for people since it may be the first time they’ve been impacted by the virus. Having someone call you out of the blue to tell you you’re quarantined for two weeks can be a shock.”

Hittson said demographic information is taken to make sure contacts reside in Franklin County and to confirm their relationship to the confirmed case.

“We ask about any symptoms they may have, discuss quarantine and answer questions,” Hittson said. “It’s so important that people are open and honest and that they feel safe sharing this information. Being empathetic to everyone’s unique situation and making a personal connection make the calls much easier.”

What are the most common questions contacts have for the health department?

Hittson said most of the questions are regarding the length of quarantine and how long they can be contagious. Many want to know what this means for their close contacts. They also want to know when they can go back to work or school.

Do people you call seem frightened about the virus?

“Yes, some do seem frightened but not everyone,” Hittson said. “Some people have been very sick and I think that’s taken them by surprise. It’s also frightening when several people in the household are COVID-19 positive yet one person becomes significantly more ill than the others. Once people have a personal experience — they or someone they know has had a rough time with this virus — they tend to take it much more seriously.

Do the people you call seem like they will follow the guidance given to them over the phone?

“I believe most people will follow the guidelines to an extent but certainly not everyone,” Hittson said. “I also think that quarantining away from household contacts is very difficult. We remind people that the more you can isolate from others, the more you are protecting them from attaining the virus and becoming a host. If people put in the energy up front to stop the spread of this virus, more people stay well. It’s very real and it is not just the flu. Wear your mask and be kind to one another!”