Contact tracer is a full-time job

Every day as we see COVID-19 case counts rise a background process often goes unnoticed — contact tracing.

Per the Department of Health, contact tracing is defined as “the process of identifying, notifying, and monitoring anyone who came in close contact with an individual who has COVID-19 while that individual was infectious.”

That responsibility largely falls on Jonie Smitley, who Warren County hired as its infectious disease nurse at the outset of the pandemic.

What started as a part-time “as-needed” position has turned into a full-time job and more as case counts have spiked in the last month.

The contact information for positive patients come from a variety of entities.

“Everything is HIPPA compliant,” she said.

Smitley’s first step is a phone call to the patient — “hours and hours and hours” of phone calls at this point.

The calls vary in length — she explained someone living alone who doesn’t go out much might be able to work through the process in 15-20 minutes while others can go 45 minutes. She said the average is around 25 minutes.

Those calls are key “because you have to be thorough to find out” who they were in contact with, when they were exposed and sort out quarantine guidelines for themselves and family. “It can be quite long and extensive.”

On Tuesday, information started coming in before 8 a.m. and she tries to not call folks after 9 p.m.

Smitley has handled thousands of these calls at this point. While she has been handling contact tracing in the county since “day one,” she had been involved in the effort with the Navajo Nation and internationally in Italy, as well.

“Because of my background and what I do on an international level, this is what I do. I happen to live in Warren County,” she said.

As a result, she can say she’s dealt with some of the worst situations around the world.

“You see that here,” she said. “You just know. You can tell” when people are struggling.”

While her efforts as a contact tracer are critical in county government’s response, the calls serve a much more important role — a chance to check in on the well-being of residents of the county who have contracted COVID-19.

“We care about our citizens legitimately, we care about where you’re at,” she said. “(I) know it’s a scary time” for some. “For somebody to check in, it has been an overwhelmingly good response.”

Of all the calls she’s made, one didn’t have time to talk, one wasn’t real talkative and a third was “just kind of rude.

In addition to the initial calls, Smitley has made herself available to those people should questions come up in the days and weeks after their diagnosis.

“Everybody else has been so, so grateful,” she said. “Just to have that resource, they have been overwhelmingly thankful.”

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