BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ- After the recent COVID-19 testing in Berkeley Heights, where over 1,000 were tested, residents raised questions and concerns about contact tracing in the community.

While contact tracing for communicable diseases isn’t brand new to Union County, for the majority of the community it's the first time interacting with contact tracers. Residents have shown concerns of how much information tracers know about patients, if they can track your location, and others questions have arisen. 

Established in the early days of the pandemic, contact tracers for COVID-19 have been alerting residents of exposure to positive COVID-19 patients in the hopes of not only keeping residents safe but also helping to curb the spread of the virus. 

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Union County Division of Health answered the following questions for TAPinto:

TAPinto: In what way(s) can people help you best do your job?

UC: People can help by being receptive to answering our call and complying with the CDC guidelines set forth by government health officials including wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing, and staying home when sick. 

TAPinto: What is something you want the communities you serve to know about your contact tracers? 

UC: Union County contact tracers are qualified and properly trained.

They also noted that in terms of security, contact tracers do not know the name of the patient who has tested positive. They only know who they must contact. 

Tapinto: Some members of the public don’t trust contact tracers, thinking you can track their location or have extensive private information on them. How do you dispel these rumors?

UC: We assure the public that all information is kept private and confidential. Their information is stored in a secure database and never shared. Our job is to protect the community and minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Note: It is not the job of contact tracers to report violations of public health guidelines to the authorities. 

TAPinto: What does the general day look like for a Union County contact tracer?

UC: Preparing their space and technology and reviewing pertinent information prior to making and receiving phone calls to contacts for the day. As issues come up throughout the day, contact tracers consult with their supervisor for immediate assistance by phone, group chat, and/or email. The job is entirely remote, and all work is done from home. Shifts begin at 8 a.m. and end at 8 p.m.

TAPinto: What is the general morale like amongst your contact tracers? How has this changed from the beginning days of the pandemic to now?

UC: Our contact tracers are highly motivated and very eager to reach out to the public. Contact tracers are supported by one another as well as by their leading supervisors. Mass Zoom meetings incorporating all staff are held to encourage collaboration and share valuable insight across teams. This promotes a unified team effort and engagement among all individuals within the contact tracing workforce.

TAPinto: In recruiting contact tracers, what are some checks you as an agency go through?

UC: Most of our contact tracers are contracted from the New Jersey Department of Health. They must satisfactorily pass a stringent training curriculum before they are assigned to the county health department for contact tracing. We also recruit contact tracers through the county’s Medical Reserve Corp (MRC). For the purposes of contact tracing, we have recruited professionals of varying backgrounds which include public health, social services, and education. We look for people with strong communication and interpersonal skills, organizational skills, critical thinking, computer proficiency as well as empathy, and cultural competence. We recognize the value of having a well-rounded team of individuals that are equipped with transferable soft-skills necessary to deal with the various sensitive issues the public is currently experiencing during these uncertain times that this pandemic has brought on. 

Note: A public health background is not required to become a contact tracer.

TAPinto: How long does the training process take for a new contact tracer? 

UC: Training begins with an online training course offered by the State of New Jersey that was created in collaboration with the Rutgers School of Public Health. Once this online training course is successfully completed, the county initiates one-on-one training with each prospective contact tracer. This involves a series of mock-calls in which a new contact tracer makes practice calls with an experienced contact tracer or a supervisor while enacting several challenging scenarios that may potentially come up. 

TAPinto: How do you ensure data safety both in the realm of cybersecurity and also in making sure contact tracers are not discussing private information?

UC: As a strict requirement of the one-on-one training, contact tracers are taught the principles of privacy rule standards of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Before they make any live calls, they must demonstrate the ability to navigate an interview with various difficulty levels while remembering to always maintain privacy and confidentiality. 

With a recent report finding a majority of New Jersey residents are not complying with contact tracers, they noted how tracers of different cultures and languages, including Spanish, are being used to better connect with residents. Working to ensure trust with the community can always help, they said. 

Editor's Note: Aidan English is a junior at Gov. Livington High School participating in the TAPinto Berkeley Heights internship program. Contact bpeer@tapinto.net with inquiries regarding internship opportunities.