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.