Wrapped in an electric blanket and sitting in her neighbor’s vacant cottage, Lauren Schauer was about to make a phone call that would change a family’s life.
She had her usual big mug of water, having gone next door to give her daughter some space to study for a law school exam.
Glancing at the call list that does not have an ending these days, there sometimes are names she knows that get reassigned.
Schauer introduces herself as a member of the contact tracing team for Jefferson County. Then tells the mother on the other end of the line that her child has tested positive for COVID-19.
There is a shock in that moment for some, and concern for what might come next.
Schauer then tells them information that they need to know about the virus, but these days the public is well educated. The script she recites changes weekly, as quickly as the virus does. When Schauer started, the job of a contact tracer also included finding out those who the person came in contact with, then calling everyone.
Now, with cases having surged to thousands a day in Wisconsin, she and the rest of the Jefferson County team are in crisis mode. They encourage the family on the other end of the line to contact people and quarantine. Schauer answers any questions they have, then starts the process again.
Her days seem like most others — long and never ending.
But when the virus hit, the retired high school English teacher and librarian decided she was not going to sit back at her home in Palmyra and do nothing as the virus raged across the world.
“I wanted to do something to help my community,” she said. “If I could help one person and one family, and stop that spreading, then I did something.”
Perhaps the unsung heroes in this pandemic are the ones on the phone trying to get this virus under control. They spend their days by themselves for the call — occasionally talking to people on the other side of the phone who think their privacy is being invaded, occasionally giving harsh comments back.
“Some might see us as intrusive or infringing on personal freedom but that’s not what we are doing,” Schauer said. “I don’t care who they voted for or what they did. I’m trying to stop the spread. This is a public emergency and not a political issue.”
As a senior in college last March at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sebastian Kelnhofer-Maldonado was getting plenty of interviews for his first big job. He was a political science major who had heard about the coronavirus and had made it to final interviews.
Within weeks, the state and country had shut down.
“I had applied for about a hundred jobs before January (of last year),” he said. “Almost every single (one said) they were not hiring at this time anymore. Any chance of career advancement was put on hold.”
Recruited through a health care company in July, Kelnhofer-Maldonado found himself working for Jefferson County, still living in nearby Dane County.
While he had worked in a call center dealing with sexual offender issues in a previous job, contact tracing for a health department was going to be a new world.
“I think there’s just the great need,” Kelnhofer-Maldonado said. “My connection with my grandparents, knowing that young people are carriers (was part of the decision to help).”
He is glad to have made the decision to do the job, in part, because of the team he works with.
“Kind of the nature of the job is very independent,” Kelnhofer-Maldonado said. “Trying to get through as many patients as we can and provide the highest quality as we can.”
The 10-person team meets once a week with Gail Scott, director of the Jefferson County Health Department, who tells of any changes in their jobs that week based on caseload.
The meetings have been an important boost in morale, Kelnhofer-Maldonado said.
As the virus has worn on, not only has the general public experienced pandemic fatigue, but so have front-line workers who are dealing with patients. And contact tracers who often are the voice of information.
The first time he called a person to inform them they had the virus, he said it was nerve-wracking.
“Even me, having the experience doing that (in a call center) there was so much they could ask me I wouldn’t know,” Kelnhofer-Maldonado said.
He credits a mentor that worked as a contact tracer for boosting his confidence. He said he tries to provide the best information he can for one reason.
“There is potential they could get more people sick,” Kelnhofer-Maldonado said. “Our goal is to play defense. If we are able to do this we are able to save lives.”
And then there are the times he gets an email updating that a person died.
“You don’t get that in most jobs,” he said.
When Schauer first started doing contract tracing, she would spend 40 minutes on the phone with someone and the call list was short. These days she finds herself firing off the calls as rapidly as she can. Maybe 15 minutes and moving on.
“Each call is different,” she said. “The person (could be) retired and living alone in a house, but we might also talk to teens. There are lots more people.”
The goal now is to rely on the person that is positive to quarantine and call others.
There also is a contact tracing phone app in Wisconsin that launched in late December that has been popular to sign up for, but no one knows if that is working. The goal of the app is to let people know more quickly that they have come in contact with someone who has the virus.
Scott said the county will continue using contact tracers here. And as more vaccines get distributed, the job could go back to trying to contain an outbreak.
As the virus has lingered, education on what to do is more prevalent.
“We have all kinds of resources contacting that person,” Schauer said.
In the early days of the virus in Wisconsin, she said there was a stigma surrounding anyone who got sick. People were worried that they might lose their job or be somewhat of an outcast.
“Now that seems like everyone knows someone who has tested positive,” Schauer said. “There’s not quite as much of a stigma as in the past.”
Having graduated college with a journalism degree, Schauer said the work is akin to being an investigative reporter connecting dots.
“They will tell you stuff,” she said. “I remember that last guy, and you start to connect the dots. You uncover locations and events.
“It’s like being Columbo,” she added. “You figure the outbreak out.”
Sometimes, Schauer is the first person to tell someone they have the virus.
“Some people yell at you,” she said.
For Kelnhofer-Maldonado, he said the tracers simply are trying to do their best, and that people often are fearful of robocalls and scams. His job is to know how to answer any questions people might have.
He also has gained respect and admiration for those in the medical field working the front lines.
“We are approachable and we’re trying to do our best. Letting them know they tested positive for COVID,” Kelnhofer-Maldonado stated, matter-of-factly. “People might have this reaction, not believing it’s real, but there now is definitely less of that.”
For him, there is one goal in the job.
“I know there is no way to force them to stay home,” he said. “Getting them to be on that common goal to protect others is how I have to frame the whole conversation.
“People are more concerned,” he observed. “They don’t want to cause harm to other people and don’t want to infect them.”
Kelnhofer-Maldonado also is bilingual. For the Spanish-speaking population in the county, he often is the voice on the other line.
With the amount of cases the state has been getting, peaking at more than 7,000 a day in November, he said the tracers know something is not working.
“We are having exponential growth,” Kelnhofer-Maldonado said.
Taking the lead
Benjamin Van Haren has enjoyed being a Swiss-Army knife as a lead contact tracer who answers questions from the team and fills in where needed.
“For me it’s really rewarding work to be productive for a community,” he said.
Van Haren said there definitely is a certain type of person who becomes a tracer.
“You are interacting with people who you have never spoken with before,” he said.
One of the keys to the job, he said, is almost over-explaining everything to people who have the virus to try and make them calm during a stressful situation.
“I don’t try to convince them of anything,” Van Haren said. “But here is what I know.”
He realizes the nature of the job is stressful. Across the state, he said, there is a lot of turnover in the field. But the group as a whole tries to eliminate as much stress as possible.
The team of 10 tracers meets each week, something that not only is for new information, but to check on mental health.
Scott said the job of a tracer is complex and extremely difficult. While there has been some turnover in the beginning, she said, the team has been stable and supportive of each other.
“That is good for our community as they are having experienced contact tracers working with them,” she said. “Contact tracing is still extremely vital and nothing has changed for isolation or quarantine guidelines.”
From a public health standpoint, Van Haren said they are not able to do everything they want because of the amount of cases. But they are working to get information out.
Scott said there are three important things tracers need from people.
“Please answer the phone,” she said. “They are absolutely there to help and have resources for people. Many people have thanked them for their guidance and assistance.”
Also, get tested, she emphasized. Testing rates in Jefferson County have gone down, even though there are plenty of free testing sites open.
And third, stay home if you are sick.
As the vaccine rollout slowly moves forward, Scott said it is vital for people to continue to wear facemasks, keep distanced from others and do not have gatherings.
“We are finding cases from families and friends who got together over the holidays,” she said. “Our cases had trended down a bit and are now going back up.”
There are bags of peanut M&Ms that help Schauer get through the workday. She loves to take walks and even has been streaming “The Sopranos.”
But leaving the job at work each night is difficult when the job often takes place at one’s kitchen table.
It’s important, Schauer said, to have that break and talk with others who do the job.
“I have wonderful teammates and support,” she remarked. “It’s definitely a lifeline for me. Something that totally takes your mind off what you do. You have to take a break, or you will lose your mind.”
Schauer has not tested positive for the virus but knows others who have. Her husband even had to quarantine once.
And like everyone else, she said it’s not fun to wear a mask. But it’s so critically important.
“I want a mask that’s says wear the mask,” Schauer said.
While the job is fulfilling, she said she is not trying to learn secrets about anyone. Instead, her job is to stop the spread of COVID.
There are many things needed to be a tracer, she said. But often they are things one simply cannot purchase.
“You have to have a computer and a phone and patience,” Schauer said. “And a little sense of humor and empathy.”
As the coronavirus has been the main media topic for almost a year, there needs to be a time when the TV is turned off at night.
It is important to stay informed, Kelnhofer-Maldonado said, but sometimes there needs to be something else to take one’s mind elsewhere.
“Definitely, it is interesting. Some people, their work follows them home,” he said. “My sense, it feels like it never shuts off. There is info everywhere — from the media and the news. Something that is making me think about work. I definitely have to get away from the news.”
With anxiety and depression hitting the population during this time, Kelnhofer-Maldonado said staying in touch with others helps.
In January, places like Fort HealthCare began vaccinating its staff with the Moderna vaccine. A sign that help is on the way. For contact tracers, the vaccine could signal a shift to normalcy in case COVID numbers decline.
“It’s all up in the air still, but really promising to see the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine,” Van Haren said
Schauer can’t wait for the immunizations, saying, “We (then) can all move on with our lives.”
But this past year won’t soon leave her thoughts.
Schauer knows she will be sitting at her home one day when this all is over, reflecting about the pandemic. And that’s the true reason she became a tracer.
“Years later,” she said, “I want to look back and think: Where were you during COVID?”