Contact Tracers Are On Front Lines Of Fight Against COVID-19 On Campus As Thanksgiving break approaches, many schools are seeing spikes in coronavirus cases. Some campuses are using students to work the phones as contact tracers.

With Cases Surging, Colleges Turn To Students For Help

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College students head home for the holidays soon. Can you believe we're just over a week from Thanksgiving? Students traveled from different parts of the country to campus and now travel back, so it matters a lot what they did on campus that contained or spread coronavirus. Many colleges have tried contact tracing when someone tests positive. It's a big job, since an outbreak after a college party could mean hundreds of phone calls. NPR's Elissa Nadworny met students doing that work.





NADWORNY: You must be Sarah.

BELLATTI: Yeah, I'm Sarah.

NADWORNY: Sarah Bellatti is a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder. She's part of a team of students at the university calling other students who have come into contact with someone who's tested positive.

Wow. And so is this the desk where you do most of your contact tracing?


NADWORNY: In the corner of her off-campus house, she set up a workspace surrounded by gauzy curtains for a bit of privacy.

BELLATTI: We have a script that we use. Let me pull that up.

NADWORNY: This far into the semester, she doesn't need the script. But it's there just in case.

BELLATTI: Talking to strangers can be nerve-racking sometimes, especially if the person comes across as agitated or doesn't really want to speak with you. So it's nice to have there.

NADWORNY: One of the biggest challenges for Bellatti and contact tracers throughout the country is compliance. Will the caller listen when she tells them they need to quarantine or isolate? Bellatti says she can tell within the first few minutes if she's going to face some resistance.

BELLATTI: You can hear people kind - they slowly talk like this, and they ask very few questions. You know, is this a scam?

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

BELLATTI: And they say, wait a minute - so I can't go to the gym? Well, who's enforcing this?

DIANA MORALES: I truly enjoy this job.

NADWORNY: Diana Morales, a contact tracer and junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, assures people she's not calling to get them in trouble.

MORALES: I'm just not, like, a public health official that's going to yell at them. Like, I'm a student, too.

NADWORNY: She relates to them with language.

MORALES: I will be like, oh, that's cool, or I feel that, or sweet.

NADWORNY: Unlike Bellatti in Colorado, Morales makes her calls from a large room at the local health department...

SHELBY DORSEY: Hi. My name is Shelby Dorsey. I'm calling from Champaign-Urbana...

OLIVE PANUMPABI: Hi. This is Olive calling from the Champaign-Urbana...

NADWORNY: ...Alongside more than a dozen other callers.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Can you think of anyone that you had close contact with since you've been on campus that has since tested positive?

NADWORNY: There have been issues here and across the country of students not answering the phone when contactors call them.

DORSEY: Please call us back at 217-239...

NADWORNY: Shelby Dorsey is a senior studying theater at Illinois.

DORSEY: Well, so far, I've called three people, and I haven't been able to contact them yet. So I've just left voicemails.

NADWORNY: Getting students to pick up and then actually follow the rules can make or break the success of a semester.

ECHO FRIDLEY: My voice is raspy, and my throat hurts because I've been talking for so long.

NADWORNY: Echo Fridley is a contract tracer at Syracuse University in upstate New York. Last week, about 200 students tested positive for the virus. The school has canceled in-person classes for the remainder of the semester, and about 600 students are currently in quarantine.

FRIDLEY: I'm definitely super overwhelmed.

NADWORNY: The spread is so pervasive in the community it's made it especially hard to do contact tracing.

FRIDLEY: Now I feel like whenever I call people, it's just - all their contacts are also positives.

NADWORNY: Another big challenge Fridley has faced - students aren't truthful about who they've been hanging out with. And she says with Thanksgiving break coming up and classes now online, students who should be quarantining or isolating are heading home early.

FRIDLEY: People are scared that they're going to get trapped. So a lot of people are just jumping on planes and just going all over the country.

NADWORNY: For Fridley, that's made calling people especially hard these days.

FRIDLEY: I feel like the bad guy. Honestly, that's one of the hardest jobs, is calling people and telling them that they have to go into quarantine.

MAX ONDERDONK: Fourteen days of underwear - that's really the biggest thing.

NADWORNY: Max Onderdonk, another contract tracer at Syracuse, had to quarantine himself earlier this semester. When he's making calls, he offers his own experience as advice. He tries to keep the mood upbeat, since students getting the call now to isolate or quarantine might mean Thanksgiving alone in a hotel room. For that, they'll need to bring some entertainment. For Max, that meant...

ONDERDONK: A lot of '90s hip-hop albums and, like, a lot of "Sopranos."

NADWORNY: By the end of his quarantine, he'd made it to Season 4.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

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