Harry and the Contact Tracer

Updated: Feb 6

The first person I spoke to this morning was Harry. Harry is 99. He lives in an independent living facility and had COVID about a month ago. I work as a contact tracer and we try to contact people within twenty-four hours of their COVID diagnosis. With older folks, it often takes a while to track them down because they are in and out of the hospital or rehabilitation centers recovering.

When I spoke to Harry this morning he was well over his COVID illness except for a persistent cough and moderately low oxygen. I asked him the requisite questions about his symptoms, the onset date, and his health history and then we just chatted. I told him what an honor it was to talk to a ninety-nine-year-old and what a treat it was to start my day with a call to him.

I don’t know where Harry was from. He had an eastern European accent. He told me that he walks every day and since having COVID, has found that he needs to take more rests. He told me that he goes to the podiatrist to get his nails cut because he can no longer reach them to do it himself. He told me he’s getting his first vaccine shot on February 12th; it was delayed because he got sick.

I told Harry that my stepfather Al is ninety-three but that I haven’t seen him in a year because he’s in Chicago. Al will hopefully get his COVID vaccine on Sunday. My mom and my sister will help him navigate the subzero Chicago weather to get to the hospital for his magic shot. I told Harry that I missed Al and that talking to him was almost as good.

A few days ago I had a call with a ninety-five-year-old woman named Pam. Pam, like Harry, was energized and happy. Unlike many elderly people, Pam had no symptoms with her positive COVID diagnosis. Pam told me that she believes she is so healthy because, like Harry, she goes for lots of walks. Also, she added, she is a watercolor artist and has always painted standing up. Last month I switched to a standing desk and hearing Pam’s analysis of her own good health affirmed my decision to spend my days standing instead of sitting.

I love talking to elderly people.Compared to other people I talk to in my job as a contact tracer, they are comparatively wise, calm, and present. Yesterday I helped staff the health district’s call center because it was so inundated with people calling about the vaccine. In my state, there are over a million seniors trying to get vaccinated and there simply are not enough vaccines.

For two hours yesterday, I answered phone calls from people in their 70s and 80s trying to figure out how to make an appointment for a vaccine. I had to tell them that we are out of vaccines, that there are none to be had through the health district in the near future. Their only option, I reluctantly told them, was to go to the website and click and refresh and repeat until they got an appointment.

Some people told me that they’d been clicking, refreshing, and repeating for three weeks. One eighty-two-year-old man with a landline told me that he didn’t own a computer. I repeated the same disappointing news to every caller and then we chatted. They thanked me for answering. It was so great they said, to hear a real voice, to have someone actually pick up the phone.

Sometimes we laughed at the absurdity of the situation, that, like the mismanagement at the beginning of COVID, our great country is once again bumbling through this important vaccine rollout. Many people vented. They told me about their COPD or recent cancer diagnosis. They told me that they were a veteran or retired nurse.

Every call I answered I knew I would be disappointing the caller, replying that I had no good news. And at the end of every call, there was a moment of acceptance by the caller. Okay, they said, they’d try what I had suggested. I’m sorry, I always told them, I wish I could have helped you more. And every single person told me, in their own way, that they were just grateful that I answered, that someone had picked up the call and listened to them.

Those people dialing the call center just needed someone to listen to them. They needed a real person on the line, even if that real person was giving them bad news. The job of a contact tracer can be rote and a grind, but the moments of talking to these wise elders is a gift. It happens every few days that I have a rich conversation with an elder, more seldom do I get to chat with someone as old as Harry.

The lesson from Harry and all of these elders is that connecting is important. We all need it. It doesn’t take much to connect, to feel seen and heard. A short phone call, a listening ear.

When I called Harry and Pam I felt a sense of connection to them — to their presence and wisdom. They shared something only they can know in their ripe old age. They offered me that connection. And yesterday when I sat and listened to all of those people trying to get a vaccine I was simply offering that to them — a chance to connect to a real person, to share their frustration, fears, and fatigue.

I started this job as a contact tracer eight months ago. It’s a new experience for me. A few months before the pandemic hit I sold my yoga studio, a business I had owned and operated for almost twenty years. I’ve found great joy in having a job with a supervisor and a team. I’m simply working. I don’t have to create new projects, manage employees, satisfy customers. I just get to do the tasks assigned to me in my job.

While it is sometimes understimulating, the satisfaction I get from just being a worker bee overrides the feelings of boredom time and time again. And there are wonderful moments too like with Harry and Pam.

Today will be another day of calling and asking questions, of staffing the call center and listening to the woes of sweet old people who just want a vaccine. But I’m glad to be doing this work. In this big, scary, confusing world, it’s giving me lots of little opportunities to simply listen and connect.

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