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Science and Innovations

NAU Student Discusses Her Experiences As A COVID-19 Contact Tracer

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In the early days of the pandemic Coconino County recruited more than a dozen students from Northern Arizona University to work as contact tracers. Melinda Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in NAU’s Interdisciplinary Health program, was part of the monitoring team that follows up with people who have come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Smith about how the work could be emotionally difficult… and also become politicized over time.

Walk me through a typical day for doing contact tracing.

First we’d received a list of new cases to contact through Coconino County. During our available times we would give them a call. Our primary duties were to either inform the cases of their potential exposure status, exposure to COVID 19. Or, it was monitoring them to make sure they had what they needed, to collect data on whether or not they came into contact with anyone else, so we were identifying clusters at the same time. All in the hopes of preventing and managing COVID-19 in our county.

When you called someone, were they typically surprised to learn that they had been in contact with someone who had tested positive, or did they already know that?

Not all the time. I would say most of the time they knew… But that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes they were learning about it for the first time. You had mixed reactions, you had people who were really surprised and maybe nervous and anxious about learning that news. You had some people that were ready to do what they needed to do, they didn’t have too much fear, if that makes sense… Some people just flat don’t want to talk you, and the phone hangs up. It’s like, whoa! You have to step back and go sit in another room for a minute or two before you get back to it.  

It sounds like your experience changed over time. At the beginning of the pandemic people were more open to talking with you, and less so as time when on?

That was my experience…. The more political it got, I felt like I ran into that more as time went on and it became a political topic, COVID-19, especially with mask wearing ad stuff like that. Honestly it gave me a little anxiety the more political it became, because you don’t want to offend anyone, you want to promote public health and you want everyone to be well…. I think as the topic became political, you had people that just saw you as a political entity calling you rather than as a public health worker. Or maybe they saw public health workers as a political entity.

Through this experience what did you learn about the pandemic that you wish other people knew?

I guess I got a firsthand at how serious it was. You had people personally affected by it. People who had been in the ER because of it. I haven’t had to deal with this personally, but other contract tracers have had to talk to people who have lost people over it. It was very real for me. It made it real for me.

Melinda Smith, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.