A tour with contact tracers in New York, as the historic health program ends

Earlier today, Bouda and a few colleagues met on a sunny bench at St. James’s Park in Fordham. People walked dogs and rode bikes, enjoying the spring weather. It was a far cry from the world the Bronx and the rest of the city saw two years ago, said Ronald Gibbs, another veteran contact tracer.

“You didn’t even hear the birds chirping outside,” he said of the early months of the pandemic. Like so many New Yorkers, Gibbs lost his job as COVID ravaged the city. He worked as an isolation manager at a hotel for coronavirus patients for a few months, then joined the Test & Trace Corps.

“I’m trying to figure out how to feed my family and take care of everything,” he said. “My family was pretty nervous about it because no one even knew what COVID was.”

Jennifer Laub, who had just finished a long career in health informatics, was looking for something new when the pandemic hit. She remembers watching the Governor at the time. Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings and his sense of call to action when he shared a hotline for people who wanted to work as contact tracers.

“When he put the number on the screen, it’s like, ‘I’m going to call,'” she said. “And I just felt compelled not to sit on my hands wondering what was going to happen next.”

College students also made up a large portion of their initial ranks. Bouda was working on her thesis for her degree in neuroscience at Queens College. Annie Seugling, then working as a freelance contemporary dancer, was studying biology at Hunter College.

“I graduated in May 2020, which is a tough time to consider job prospects,” Seugling said. “It was really nice to have something to land on, and it was especially nice to be able to help out during this time.”

Still, those early days were stressful, especially as the number of cases grew. Seugling said she sometimes traveled miles to visit 15 or more people in one day.

“Contact tracing should come with Heelys,” Gibbs said, referring to roller sneakers, “because you’re everywhere.”

Sometimes clients welcomed them and appreciated the information and resources they had to share, Gibbs, Seugling and others said. Other times they were ignored, refused or even threatened during visits. The patients they helped were frightened, suspicious and often angry or grieving.

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