CSSW Alumni Join the Ranks of COVID-19 Contact Tracers in NYC
Social work training proves to be the ideal background for working at the community level to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
Update: Since this article was written, Kimberly Jocelyn was promoted to senior management consultant in the New York City Health and Hospitals Test & Trace Corps.
When the coronavirus began spreading through New York City last spring, Kimberly Jocelyn (MPH’19, MSW’19) had a typical human reaction: fear.
“I was scared of COVID-19 because I knew very little about the virus, and deaths and cases were increasing every day at an alarming rate,” she says.
But one day, as she watched a news segment on CNN about the city’s contact tracing program, Jocelyn’s social work training kicked into high gear. She found herself eager to learn more about this escalating threat to health, lives, and livelihoods across the city. ”I immediately knew COVID-19 would take a profound toll on our collective well-being,” she says, adding that once she got beyond the point of seeing the virus as a barrier, she decided to run toward, not away from the situation. “I saw it as an opportunity to help people affected by the social, biological, and environmental determinants of health and mental health, such as institutional and structural racism and rooted health inequities.”
Less than two weeks later, Jocelyn, who already had experience working for the CDC Quarantine Station at Kennedy International Airport, was hired as a case investigator supervisor in the New York City Health and Hospitals Test & Trace Corps. In July, her work was highlighted in a New York Times profile, “How a COVID-19 Contact Tracer Spends Her Sundays.”
Contact tracing is not a new job, but it has been on the rise in the wake of the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic on American shores. As businesses and schools reopen in phases, and more people venture outside their homes, contact tracers play the vital role of reaching out to those who have tested positive (called “cases”) to determine whom they’ve been in contact with. They then face the difficult task of notifying all of the names on the list in an effort to limit the spread of the disease.
“The hardest part,” Jocelyn says, “is telling someone to safely separate because people are caretakers, homeless, or live in a household with many others.”
The social work profession, which overlaps significantly with public health, seems well matched to the demands of contact tracing. Social workers are given training in how to walk people through difficult conversations about health and point them to resources and care, all the while being sensitive to their cultural context. In the case of COVID-19, many New Yorkers are already feeling stressed whether from losing a job, schooling children at home, or mourning the loss of loved ones. Members of Black and Brown communities, who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, are particularly stressed. Many of them are facing the added burdens of racism and discrimination when trying to get medical care.
Two other CSSW alumni, Seth Michael Hoffman and Joshua Emmanuel Garcia, both of whom graduated in May, found that they were able to transfer their social work skills immediately into working as contact tracers in New York City. “When I was first making calls, the hardest part was persuading people to continue the call and not hang up,” Hoffman says. Garcia can relate. “I’ve had folks become angry at me when in reality they’re angry at the information they just received and now must process,” he says.
Both of these new graduates credit their coursework and fieldwork with preparing them for this kind of challenge. Hoffman says he often draws on what he learned in CSSW’s Motivational Interviewing Lab, as well as his field placements at a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) and the Department for the Aging. “This kind of work requires active listening, engagement, affirmations and considering each person’s specific needs,” he explains.
Garcia agrees. “My social work training has reminded me of the importance of empathy. It has helped me to view COVID-19 cases as more than cases or statistics. They are actual people with lives, families, jobs, hobbies, and friends.”
But while empathy is important, constantly having to show compassion for others can lead to compassion fatigue or burnout. In her role of supervising a team of contact tracers, Jocelyn reviews over 150 cases per day, conducts quality assurance and research on the contact tracing database, develops policies and guidelines, and collaborates with other teams and agencies—all while fielding phone calls herself and providing support for her 17-member team as they make challenging calls. She offers some tips for those who, like her, are managing a team of contact tracers and trying to keep up their spirits:
Despite these challenges, all three graduates say they are committed to remaining on the frontlines to slow down the spread of the coronavirus in the city. As Jocelyn puts it: “It’s an honor to contribute to this critical moment of history and help people experiencing stress, trauma, and complicated loss and grief recover.”
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