A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

A day in the life of a UK COVID-19 contact tracer: ‘That call can be really hard for some to receive’

By Lindsey Piercy
University of Kentucky

It’s 8 a.m., and it’s time for Eryn Clayton to pick up the phone and begin dialing.

There’s a pause as the call connects.

A University of Kentucky student is on the other end. Clayton smiles sympathetically as she introduces herself — she will be the first to inform them they have tested positive for COVID-19.

“That call can be really hard for some to receive and expected for others.”

Clayton is trying to keep the mood light — not because the call isn’t serious. In fact, it’s just the opposite, and getting a stranger to trust you is a monumental task.

“I have to be ready throughout the day to have open conversations, provide guidance as best I can and ultimately make sure the person on the other end, and their friends and families, are safe.”

UK COVID-19 contact tracers working in the Boone Center. (Photo by Pete Comparoni)

As the conversation continues, Clayton is working to educate the patient — inform them of what their test result means and provide them with important resources. She details symptoms, high-risk pre-existing medical conditions, what to do if more severe symptoms develop and helps to create an isolation plan. (To clarify the terminology: those who test positive are in isolation; those who come into close contact with a positive case are quarantined to prevent the spread of the virus in case they have contracted it.)

Additionally, Clayton is trying find out where they’ve been, and more specifically, who they’ve been around. With each interaction, the web has widened.

“Imagine the impact if we could reach every person who tests positive before the virus could spread to another — that’s the goal.”

But Clayton is working against the clock.

As the call comes to a close, she begins drafting a follow-up email and creating a task for UK Health Corps to address any academic, food and housing needs.

Who Receives a Call and Who Doesn’t?

Then, Clayton picks up the phone again.

“We start reaching out to the UK-affiliated contacts and inform them they came into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.”

All students, faculty and staff at UK are considered a contact when they have high-risk exposure (close contact) with a positive case. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines close contact as within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes. “But there are also various extensions of this as you can imagine the multitude of circumstances where respiratory droplets could pass from one person to another,” Clayton explained. “As a basis though, this is how we determine who is a contact and who is not.”

Those who receive a call will never know the name of the person they came into contact with — that information remains confidential.

Any contacts that are not members of the UK community, Health Corps sends to the individual’s local health department, who will then let them know they need to isolate or quarantine.

“The difficult part is that so much of this is a waiting game — but it’s powerful. It’s difficult in the scenario where a contact can feel perfectly healthy but must quarantine for a full 14 days,” Clayton explained. “A negative test result following close contact does not mean someone is free from developing the virus within that 14-day period. But if a person in quarantine does develop the virus due to their close contact, then they won’t be able to spread it.”

When communicating these recommendations, Clayton relies on her comprehensive training.

All UK case managers are required to take a Johns Hopkins contact tracing course. Additionally, they are trained by health care leaders to make informed decisions that follow CDC guidelines and protocols.

“I’ve always been interested in health and hospitality, and I’ve held various roles within that realm,” Clayton said. “As a contact tracer, I’m pulling from all of my experience to be the best support I can be for students, faculty and staff.”

Everyone Clayton contacts will receive documentation that they have been asked to isolate or quarantine, and they may use that dated material to make the necessary arrangements. In addition, Health Corps ensures every student has a plan to quarantine or isolate safely — regardless of whether a student lives on or off campus. Through this process, UK is offering students a unique level of support and options that non-university goers may not have.

What Happens After the Initial Conversation?

Following their conversation with a contact tracer, those who test positive will also receive a call from a wellness connector.

If symptoms are mild, the individual will be asked to continue communicating with their local health department. If concerns are noted in the initial call, the patient receives immediate follow-up on a case-by-case basis depending on needs.

The local health department (wherever the individual is isolating) will provide the final release from isolation (an actual document) to those who tested positive. That documentation must be sent to Health Corps. Once that document has been received, a team member will respond through email with a final release.

If, during this process, the student has any questions or concerns, they are encouraged to call 859-218-7233 or email healthcorps@uky.edu.

What is the Student’s Responsibility?

While not required, Clayton is encouraging those who test positive to have conversations with those who might be impacted — such as roommates, professors or bosses.

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Contact tracers will only notify those who were within close contact to a positive case and are at the highest risk of spreading the virus. “That being said, we are not reporting to faculty that someone will not be in class due to testing positive — that is the responsibility of the student.”

It is also important to keep your contact information up to date in the MyUK portal, should a case manager ever need to contact you.

Protect. Respect. Do Your Part.

As Clayton prepares to wrap up for the day, she’s already thinking ahead — what will tomorrow hold?

While each day is never quite the same, there is one goal that remains constant — to keep the UK community as safe as possible. While contact tracers, like Clayton, are working tirelessly to do just that, it’s critical that students, faculty and staff continue to do their part.

Following and understanding the big four (wearing masks, washing hands, physical distancing and screening) is fundamental to slowing or stopping the spread.

“I love that as a contact tracer, I get to talk to students one-on-one every day. UK is a big school, but every person who tests positive gets a call from someone who wants to help and understand how their feeling,” Clayton said. “Personal interaction, individual care and education is what ultimately makes a huge impact here.”

What if I Have Additional Questions?

The Health Corps team, which serves as the support hub for accessing information, referrals and services related to COVID-19 for students, faculty and staff, is leading the charge to support a safe reinvented normal on campus.

Contact tracing will continue throughout the fall semester and as long as necessary. UK is taking the advice of and working closely with local health departments and public health officials during this time.

Students who have any academic needs during quarantine or isolation can reach out to Leah Vance at 859-218-SAFE.

If you have questions or concerns about COVID-19 on campus, please email healthcorps@uky.edu.

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