What’s it like to be a Covid Contact Tracer? Two Welsh tracers talk about their role

Joanna Evans likes to run along Swansea Beach early in the morning, taking in the sea air and settling her mind before a hard day’s work while her colleague Shakira Walilay prefers a country walk near her Swansea Valley home to prepare for her shift.

They are both contact tracers with the joint NPT Council, Swansea Bay University Health Board and Welsh Government Test Trace Protect (TTP) Covid-19 service for the region.

Shakira, also a college student, was a call centre worker for firms like Virgin Atlantic and TUI then became a delivery driver before signing up in January 2021 to join the TTP service – part of the ‘virtual front line’ in the ongoing battle in Swansea Bay against Covid-19.

Shakira, who works from home equipped with headset and laptop said: “Any two calls I make are never the same. Some people are going through a lot due to Covid, some are really quite ill and others have lost loved ones – it definitely hits at the heartstrings when you’re listening to this. But the good thing about this job is we are there to help, to point people in the direction of help…help they are often in serious need of.

“Yes, we do a bit of detective work in asking where they think they may have been infected and who they may have come into contact with – people can be secretive but I definitely don’t ‘interrogate’ anyone – you can learn a lot from pieces of information, about where they work and where they have been, information which can help them and others and stop the spread of the disease throughout the community.”

As well as going for a walk to get ready for work, Shakira likes to go for another country walk – after work.

She said: “I don’t look at a screen, not even my phone – for at least an hour and go for some exercise and fresh air. It helps clear your mind and gives you time to deal with some of the people you’ve spoken to and the stories and difficult circumstances you’ve heard that day. Like I said, they’re always different.

“I get plenty of help and calls from colleagues if I’ve had a particularly stressful day and there is wellbeing support in place. We’ve also had events like (virtual) quiz nights to help build team spirit. The TTP service is evolving as we go along and as I’m talking to people from Neath Port Talbot where I live it makes TTP here a local service – not like the ones operating in England which are privately run.

“The vast majority of people I speak to are fine but I’ve been shouted at, even screamed at. But we are here to help. I spoke to someone who said they thought the pandemic was all over until they suddenly lost their sense of taste and smell. It’s not over.”

Joanna Evans, a registered nurse with 25 years experience, is seconded to the TTP service from her role as an Operating Theatre Sister at Singleton Hospital.

She said: “I was advised to shield last year and I was told I could not have patient contact – I felt that joining the TTP team would give me back a purpose…it was a very steep learning curve after working face to face with people every day to sitting in front of a laptop – let’s say it was a very different environment. Contact Tracing is a public health protection service provided 365 days a year. Last year I worked on Christmas day and people were still willing to engage with us.

“I work from 8.15am to 5.15pm every day (though I sometimes work on as you cannot just shut your laptop when in the middle of something). I’m an early riser…I like to get out early when it’s quiet and before logging on at 8.15am I go for a run on Swansea Beach near my home to get in some exercise and fresh air before starting my day’s work.

“After I log on and get details of positive cases from the NHS database, we have a virtual meeting on Microsoft Teams to discuss the day’s workload, try to work out if any clusters are developing….then I just get on with it. Ensuring confidentiality (and data privacy) using empathetic interviewing techniques I gain information about those individuals our cases (positive) have come into contact with while infectious. I provide advice and guidance on isolation, symptom development and transmission of the virus to the public and assess their ability to safely isolate.

“Collaborating with other Health Professionals and approved organisations I signpost individuals to where they can receive further help and support if needed. This is part of the “Protect” element of the service that is sometimes overlooked. I have even had to get urgent medical help to people – including the ambulance service!

“There are occasions when I contact people who have tested positive that, for whatever reason, they have not been told earlier and I’m telling them for the first time. This is where my nurse training comes in. Perhaps for some this news will be expected but for others it can be very traumatic – I do all I can to advise and reassure them. The TTP service here is an eclectic mix – people in it are from all sorts of backgrounds, like nursing such as myself, the police, the council – they all bring elements from their previous roles that I think have helped to improve and develop the service.

“Most of the people I’ve contacted in Neath Port Talbot have been lovely and I’d like to thank them for their help.”