Vermont contact tracer connects with patients while identifying the spread of COVID-19

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As cases of COVID-19 emerged in Vermont back in early March, Jennifer Zoller was asked to step into a new position at her workplace.

With more residents testing positive, officials at the state’s Department of Health were in search of people who connect with patients and identify the spread of the virus.

“I started with contact tracing right at the beginning,” said Zoller, who is among more than 50 tracers working with the Vermont Department of Health to communicate with people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

COVID-19 is the official name of the disease related to the coronavirus that first started to affect people in China at the end of 2019.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most people develop only mild symptoms. But some, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal. 

Aside from her current role, Zoller works as a substance use information specialist for the Health Department’s Alcohol and Drug Prevention Division.

‘We want them to be safe and healthy’

During the pandemic, the department has relied in part on staff members with previous communications and customer service experience to assist them in tracing the spread of COVID-19 among Vermonters.

For more:How Vermont Health officials work to prevent spread of COVID-19

For Zoller, the process of contact tracing regularly begins with a call to the person’s health care provider. Through them, she learns about the severity of a patient’s illness, whether they may need interpretation services or are in need of emotional support.

Every person is going through a different experience, Zoller said, but the goal for her and her peers remains the same.

“We want them to be safe and healthy, and we want their loved ones to be safe and healthy,” Zoller said. Checking to see how a person is doing and making sure their basic needs are met always comes first for tracers.

“We’re contacting people during a really stressful and scary time and hoping that we can alleviate some of the stress and fear.”

Personal pandemic: Short stories of Vermonters facing life in the coronavirus era

Identifying the spread of the virus

Once Zoller is certain that a person has the right resources and support, she can then move forward with contact tracing.

“We start with finding out when their symptoms started,” Zoller said. From that point, she asks people to walk her through their daily activities, working their way to the present.

“Anywhere they went, anyone they came in contact with,” Zoller said. “We’re really looking for people who had close contact or more than a few minutes of interaction.”

Once she’s developed a list of contacts, Zoller can reach out to those individuals, guiding them on how to quarantine and what symptoms to keep track of.

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“It’s rewarding in a way talking to people and being able to answer their questions,” Zoller said. “Sometimes you can almost hear a weight being lifted.”

Amid the stress and daily routine of calls, Zoller has appreciated the sense of community she sees among Vermonters helping one another during the pandemic, whether that’s hearing stories of relatives bringing groceries for their quarantined loved ones, or neighbors offering to mow someone’s lawn.

“I’m happy to be a part of something that helps my community through this emergency,” Zoller said. “It really makes me happy to call Vermont home.”

Contact Ethan Bakuli at (802) 556-1804 or ebakuli@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @BakuliEthan.

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