contact tracing

Many massage therapists possess the attributes and education that also make a person a successful contact tracer.

This means a contact tracing job could be a good fit for massage therapists looking to create temporary supplemental income.

What is Contact Tracing?

Contact tracing is a process that helps arrest the spread of infectious diseases by tracking and communicating with people who have been exposed to disease.

It has been employed globally to help control the spread of tuberculosis, measles, HIV and Ebola, among other diseases — and it is being used now to help control the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).

As of mid-July, 2.5 million people had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the U.S. This pandemic has created a huge demand for contact tracers, with estimates of up to 300,000 contact tracers needed by federal, state and county health organizations.

If the reproduction number of coronavirus is brought down to below one, it will spread more slowly and feasibly lessen — so preventing just one infection can have a big impact on total COVID-19 cases over time, said Malcolm Youngren, COO of Pacific College of Health and Science, which is launching a free contact tracing course in August.

“Contact tracing is important to disseminate the information about if you have been infected and to isolate as quickly as possible,” he said. “It’s all about mathematics and it’s all about how quickly the virus spreads … speed is of the utmost importance.”

The Contact Tracing Process

In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing is the process of calling people who have just been diagnosed with the disease (this person is the “case”), talking to them to help them remember who they have recently been in contact with (each of these people is a “contact”), and then calling all the contacts to tell them of their exposure and explain to them the need to quarantine for up to 14 days. (The incubation period of COVID-19 is on average four to five days, but may be as long as 14 days.)

The contact tracer also explains to the contact the symptoms of COVID-19 and explains they might spread the illness to other people even if the contact isn’t showing symptoms. The contact tracer also asks if the contact needs such social support as help getting food and medicine or finding a temporary place to live during quarantine so that they don’t infect more people, and offers information about how to meet those needs.

The work is done from one’s home, using a telephone and a computer. The contact tracer works from a script and is provided with a list of contacts to call and access to the software needed to input data about the contacts. The contact tracer follows up with contacts via additional phone calls over the up-to-14-day quarantine to see if they are still isolating themselves, ask if they have been in contact with other people, and determine if they need assistance meeting any needs.

Empathy Comes First

Because conversations about infection, self-quarantine and possible spread of COVID-19 to loved ones can be difficult and emotional, communication that quickly develops trust and rapport is key to successful contact tracing, said Sarah Weintraub, RN, CPN, a nurse and contact tracer who teaches contact tracing at Pacific College. That communication rests on empathy, paraphrasing, reflection and active listening, she said.

“When you’re making calls to people, you have to exude empathy,” Weintraub said. “In order to get people to talk to you, you have to gain their trust. How do you do that? You have to be relatable, you have to be real, you have to be honest.”

The ability to connect empathetically to people is one requirement of contact tracing that most massage therapists possess, Weintraub said. Additional attributes that could make a massage therapist successful as a contact tracer include education in anatomy and physiology, the understanding of what an assessment is, the ability to conduct an interview (think massage intake), and an understanding of medical terminology. Most contact tracing jobs don’t require education beyond a high school diploma.

“As a massage therapist you have to have very good interpersonal skills,” said Weintraub. “[Clients] are exposing all of their vulnerabilities to you in a very private space, and I feel like people who would be interested in becoming a massage therapist would be a very good match, on many different levels, for contact tracing.”

How to Get a Contact Tracing Job

Contact tracers are currently being hired by state and local health departments, large companies and colleges, according to Steve Waters, founder of CONTRACE Public Health Corps, which screens and trains people in contact tracing.

“The demands of hiring a large number of contact tracers quickly is beyond the HR capabilities of most health departments, so many states and counties are contracting staff agencies to support their efforts,” said Waters. “So, in many cases it’s actually a staffing agency that would hire you, and you’d be an employee of that staffing agency, but working for a health department.”

This varies from place to place, though, with some state and local governments coming up with creative ways of implementing contact tracing. Massachusetts, for example, created the COVID-19 Community Tracing program to support boards of health throughout the state, while New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have joined forces to implement a tri-state contact tracing initiative. Oregon’s Health Authority has partnered with local groups and tribal authorities to coordinate contact tracing efforts.

To get started, find a short online training program to find out more about contact tracing and gauge your interest. Many such classes are being offered for free right now, some with an earned certificate, because demand for contact tracers is so high — including those by Pacific College, Johns Hopkins University, Purdue Global and others. Next, find a company or organization hiring contact tracers, whether your local health department or a staffing agency. Contact your health department, or use sites like Glassdoor, Indeed and Monster to find local openings.

If your massage practice’s hours are less than they used to be or if you are choosing to pause for a while, contact tracing could be a solid source of temporary supplemental income. A Google search shows pay of between $20 and $40 per hour.

“We think it’s a great way for [massage therapists] to supplement their income,” said Youngren, “because they know medical terminology, they know how to talk with [clients], they know how to be empathetic with [clients], they know how to get them on a course to get healthy — and so much of that is what’s happening with contact tracing.”

About the Author

Karen Menehan

Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. Her recent articles include “Best Practices for Maintaining Safety & Sanitation in a Massage Practice: An Interview with Educator Anne Williams, LMT” and “CBD Products Might be the Missing Piece in Your Self-Care Puzzle.” To prepare for writing this article, she completed certification in contact tracing through Johns Hopkins University.

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