'It's quite a burden:' Contact tracers work relentlessly to stop spread of COVID-19

CARY, N.C. (WTVD) -- They may be working in a library, but here there is no shushing allowed.

"We continue calling, we leave voicemails and we just keep at it and try to get in touch with them," Hallie Yamamoto, a Wake County contact tracer and team leader, explained to the ABC11 I-Team. "We're trying to make sure that people are alerted as quickly as possible if they've been in contact with someone who's tested positive so they can do their part by staying home."

In Wake County, 110 librarians traditionally known for their resourcefulness are now engaged in this new kind of research; at Cary Regional Library, Cameron Village Library and North Regional Library, teams staff the socially-distant call center seven days a week.

"We're the grunt workers of the detectives," Yamamoto said. "To communicate effectively you need to empathize with them and understand how they're feeling. That's a big reason why I think they chose librarians to do this job."

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With health and privacy paramount, contact tracers like Yamamoto are unaware of the COVID-19-positive patient, and instead they're provided with a roster of family members, friends, acquaintances and coworkers identified by the patient to the Emergency Operations Center and health department. Contact tracers then reach out to them, urge them to quarantine for 14 days, and direct them to resources about testing, symptoms and other information related to the new coronavirus.

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"You have to have empathy to do this because the people you're calling are scared, angry and confused," Yamamoto said. "If we know they're home without symptoms, that's wonderful. What's even better is if they've passed their 14 days of quarantine with no symptoms."

As the number of cases increases, so does the workload: on May 27, contact tracers in Wake County were monitoring just 15 people, but a month later, the roster is up to at least 923.

The volatile spread of the virus, moreover, is not exclusive to Wake County. In Orange County, for instance, officials explain the surge by pointing to the difference between the doubling in number of contacts identified by infected individuals during Phase 1 and Phase 2 of easing restrictions.

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"I understand that in this economy you have to work, however, some better social distancing is needed, more handwashing, something to that extent is needed," contact tracer Latoya Strange told ABC11. "I know there are some people who say, 'hey it's not that bad and I'll go out and not practice social distancing and have parties. What we do is very important, and I take it very seriously."

There are more than 1,500 full-time and part-time contact tracers across North Carolina; officials have long emphasized contact tracing being integral to fighting the spread of the virus, along with a comprehensive testing strategy and social distancing.

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