Here's what happens when a coronavirus contact tracer calls

  • Sean Collins, Lake County Health Department case investigator team lead, works the phones in his home office talking to residents with COVID-19 and alerting others exposed to the virus. "People are starting to understand the severity of it, but a lot think it's not a serious thing," he said.

    Sean Collins, Lake County Health Department case investigator team lead, works the phones in his home office talking to residents with COVID-19 and alerting others exposed to the virus. "People are starting to understand the severity of it, but a lot think it's not a serious thing," he said. Courtesy of Sean Collins

Updated 9/9/2020 5:38 PM

"Do you have any idea why the health department is calling you?" Kelley Donley asks Lake County residents every weekday.

The response nearly 80% of the time is, "Yeah, I tested positive for COVID," the contact tracer/case investigator explained.


And that's the start of a trail that's led to Mexico, Wyoming and back to the suburbs in an effort to save lives and nip virus infections in the bud.

Contact tracing isn't about pointing fingers, Lake County Health Department tracers told the Daily Herald in an interview.

"We're not here to scold you -- this has already happened," contact tracer/case investigator Alejandra Paiz said. Instead, "let's figure out a solution."

Donley recalled one woman who developed COVID-19 after visiting a friend in Mexico and didn't quarantine on her return. The friend was later diagnosed with the virus.

After talking, "we were able to quickly get to her employer and have them quarantine," Donley said. "We contacted all her close contacts and had them quarantine. Thus far, we have been able to prevent that spread."

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The state of Illinois has allocated more than $200 million to local health departments to ramp up COVID-19 testing as cases statewide surpass 240,000.

Part detective, part life coach, tracers help identify whom a COVID-19 patient has likely infected and deliver the bad news. Conversations can range from checking symptoms to explaining COVID-19 to connecting someone with housing assistance.

Learning you may have contracted COVID-19 "is very scary for some people," said Paiz, who works the phones in Spanish and English.

She keeps in close touch with her clients and gets occasional callbacks from overwhelmed families.

They'll say, "'I really didn't need that grocery delivery (before). Now, I do,'" Paiz said.

Some clients cut right to the chase after learning they were exposed, said Sean Collins, a case investigator team lead.

"The first thing that comes out of their mouths is: 'Who was it?'"

Collins said. "They'll try and guess, but we can't confirm or deny," as all patient information is private.


A 30-year health department employee, Collins has worked through the AIDS epidemic, the Ebola and H1N1 viruses, and now COVID-19.

"AIDS is a hard disease to catch," Collins said, unlike COVID-19, which is transmitted through droplets, usually when someone sneezes or coughs. "People are starting to understand the severity of it, but a lot think it's not a serious thing."

'This is not real'

Collins' first COVID-19 phone call went to a man who had tested positive and "was very political," telling him, "'This is not real.' We went back and forth," Collins recalled. "Part of it was just letting him vent. You can't take it personally. You have to try to build a rapport."

Many infected individuals assume their illness was caused by a stranger. The rationale is "'if I'm just around a close family member -- they wouldn't have it.' But more than likely, that's where it came from," Collins said.

Families trust each other, Paiz said, but sadly something as simple as "just getting together to see Dad on Dad's birthday" without face masks can spread the disease.

One case Donley handled involved a man who had hunkered down in Wyoming with his girlfriend. He thought his infection originated from a hotel stay en route to Illinois.

She probed further and discovered the man ate dinner with two old friends on his trip home.

To Donley, it was an "obvious" clue. "Eating dinner, not wearing masks, sitting across from each other." It turned out the friends, who are brothers, had COVID-19.

On the other hand, sometimes "you can do everything right and transmission is still possible," Collins said.

A woman Donley contacted "started to hyperventilate over the phone" after hearing she could be infected. "Let's not borrow trouble," Donley advised. "Let's talk about where you go to get tested."

The father of the woman's boyfriend has a serious health condition and "she knew -- if she spread COVID-19 to him -- he could get very, very ill."

It turned out the woman didn't have the virus, but she still quarantined for 14 days -- a positive example of how to stamp out potential spread, Donley said.

'The truth will come out'

Do residents prevaricate? "There are times I feel people are telling me what I want to hear," Donley said, "but there are ways to continue the conversation ... 80 to 90% of the time, the truth will come out."

There's no typical COVID-19 patient.

"I've had a pilot I had to call and contact the airlines," Collins said.

Recently, the tracers are handling a number of child-related cases, including day cares, public schools -- and college students who tested positive on campus returning home.

For some people there's an element of disbelief. When investigating outbreaks involving youth sports, Collins has been told that athletes' muscle aches were "just a part of working out."

"Well ... maybe," Collins noted, "but if they've been around someone who was positive, (soreness) may not have anything to do with working out. It's best to get tested."

Tracers also find themselves advising on logistics to keep household members safe. "Some families you call have six bedrooms and seven baths, (but) a lot of people have a large family and a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment," Donley said.

The health department can connect families who need assistance with caseworkers.

Reactions to the tracers' outreach run the gamut.

Collins "never had anyone swear at me," but he's been hung up on a few times. Those occasions involved younger COVID-19 patients.

"The thing that surprises me the most," Donley said, "is after you get through this intimate conversation -- at the end the majority of (clients) say 'thank you,' and have empathy for the health department."

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