4 minute read

Op Ed Editorial


From Captain America to Contact Tracing: My Journey with the NYC Test & Trace Corps

Last year at this time, I was performing stories from Seattle to Chicago armed with my turban, beard, humor, and Captain America uniform. Those plans unraveled as COVID-19 hit us hard and we lost over 20,000 New Yorkers in the spring.

Eager to help in some way, I put down my cape and leaned back on my public health training to join the new Test & Trace Corps as part of an extraordinary mission. I was one of the 3,000 city residents initially entrusted in June to trace every COVID-19 case and make sure we suppress the spread of this virus.

From the start, there was no tried and tested guide to contact tracing at a global pandemic level. The first weeks involved days-long virtual training sessions. Scheduling hundreds of contact tracers was chaotic. We followed and led each other.

My fellow tracers include public health specialists, retired teachers, physicians, pastors, emergency response specialists, nursing and social work students, business administrators, and many more. Our numbers have now grown to approximately 4,000 people strong, and we speak more than 40 languages.

I manage a team of Case Investigators. We call every New York City resident who has tested positive through laboratory testing. We provide COVID-19 education, monitor symptoms, track outdoor visits, elicit exposed contacts, and offer resources including free hotel rooms to safely isolate, access to free meals, and myriad hotlines.

Not everyone may realize this during a public health crisis, but our program is completely voluntary. In the early weeks, our biggest challenge was getting people to respond to our calls and provide contacts. Today we are successfully reaching almost 90% of all people who have COVID-19 and have completed over 350,000 tracing calls.

Our work is an ongoing response to a natural disaster. We keep learning new things. Protocols evolve. We adjust. Ours is not a perfect contact tracing program. I am its biggest critic and its biggest supporter. A critic because as an insider I see many of its shortcomings and want them all fixed. I am its biggest supporter because despite the challenges, I know this is one of the best contact tracing responses in the nation.

The credit for this achievement is not just ours. It also belongs to New Yorkers who are wearing masks, forgoing travel and celebrations with loved ones, and getting tested for COVID-19 in record-breaking numbers despite the hardships.

Community-based organizations are getting the message out to our diverse family of New Yorkers. And this has been an incredible exercise in teamwork between NYC Health + Hospitals, the Department of Health, City leadership, and private partners.

Along the way we have had more than a few challenging calls. If there is one skill that stands above the rest in our repertoire, it is empathy.

A few days ago, one of the case investigators I supervise was supposed to call a woman with COVID who is over 90 years old. A man picked up the phone and was not cooperative with the case investigator from the moment they said, “I am calling from New York Health + Hospitals.” Every inquiry made was met with some variation of, “No, I don’t know you…” As the call went on, we learned that the person with COVID was bedridden, and her son was her primary caretaker. When he spoke about his mom, we could hear the concern and stress in his voice. While we may not be able to see the person on the other line, and miss body language cues, we can pick up on their pauses, sighs, and tempo throughout the conversation.

When the call got to the end, the case investigator offered him the mental health hotline, explaining that being a caretaker – of someone with or without COVID-19 - can be very stressful and asked if he thought speaking with a professional might help him during these days. He said no, but then proceeded to share his story from past jobs, romances, and family dynamics. By the end of the call, he said, “You know, I owe you an apology, I was really rough on you in the beginning of the call and I’m sorry. Thank you for sticking it through and not giving up.”

Calls like this will stay with me for years to come as a reminder of the long-term toll this virus is taking on millions of lives, and how, even in the deepest suffering, New Yorkers still care about each other.

The mission we launched in June is not done yet. The first vaccinations reaching frontline workers and the most vulnerable, but we still have a long way to go. Until then, my fellow readers, please continue your good work to keep us, our loved ones and our communities safe.

Vishavjit Singh is a Case Investigator Supervisor in the NYC Test & Trace Corps. He is also a diversity speaker, illustrator and performance artist based in Harlem. He has been working few hours/week on global Covid-19 relief efforts with NYC based NGO, UNITED SIKHS. Learn more about his story at Sikhtoons.com Vol. 26, No 9 March 4, 2021