A day in the life of a contact tracer

Yojana Rubiano works as a contact tracer for the North Bergen Health Department

Contact tracers Yojana Rubiano (right) and Helen Tamayo.
Contact tracers Yojana Rubiano (right) and Helen Tamayo.

As New Jersey remains stuck in Phase 2 of reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracers are working to mitigate the spread of the virus. Contact tracers identify residents who have tested positive and anyone that person may have come in contact with.

Yojana Rubiano works as a contact tracer for the North Bergen Health Department.

In an interview with the Hudson Reporter, Rubiano said things were overwhelming at the peak of the virus but have largely settled down as the curve has flattened across Hudson County.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rubiano was working for the Department of Health as a Community Health Educator. She said that health promotion and events have been sidelined as the department focuses on contact tracing.

A day in the life

Rubiano starts making phone calls at 9 a.m.

The department uses the Communicable Disease Reporting and Surveillance System (CDRSS), which allows contact tracers to see all township residents who have been tested.

Rubiano explained that inconclusive results occur when some COVID-19 particles are present at the time of testing but not enough to register a positive.

Rubiano then begins calling those who have tested positive.

The goal is to reach individuals who are positive and identify others who they may have come in contact with. The tracer will then call the contacts.

Tracers advise residents to call the health department if they are symptomatic and begin quarantine.

Coping in a COVID-19 hot spot

During the height on the pandemic, North Bergen was designated a COVID-19 hotspot by Gov. Phil Murphy. Rubiano said the department was coping with thousands of cases.

“When we first encountered the high numbers, we felt overwhelmed in the sense that we didn’t know how to handle it,” Rubiano said.

The North Bergen Health Department had a shared-services agreement with West New York and was helping Union City and Guttenberg with their contact tracing.

Each day, Rubiano said she called 25 people or more, working from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. The 12-hour days sometimes continued on weekends.

In some cases, it had been more then 15 days since residents had been tested by the time the department had received the results. COVID-19 symptoms appear two weeks after exposure. Longer than that, and contact tracing is ineffective.

As a result, North Bergen tracers start with the most recent cases and work their way back.

The emotional toll

Rubiano said that for many of the people she called it was already too late.

“It was very emotional to find out that the people that we were calling were deceased or intubated at the hospital,” Rubiano said, noting there were hundreds of such cases.

Sometimes, family members would answer the phone and start crying, informing Rubiano that the person had already died.

Currently, the rate of North Bergen cases has slowed. “We were able to flatten the curve because of the strict [COVID-19] guidelines,” Rubiano said. “The compliance of the people helped the mitigation of the spread of the virus.”

Rubiano said that many people were prevented from getting sick by being sent into quarantine after contact tracing.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.