Tyshien Maddox had seen what the coronavirus could do: His mother got it. So did his two brothers and his grandparents. And a cousin died from it.
So when Community College of Philadelphia, where he is a student, asked whether he would be interested in working for the city’s Department of Public Health as a contact tracer, he was all in.
“Anything I can do to help out and let people know this is real,” said Maddox, 38, of West Philadelphia. “It was very scary for us.”
Maddox is one of 13 CCP students working among the city’s 80 contact tracers. They call known contacts of coronavirus patients, warn them about possible exposure, check on their health daily, and ask them to quarantine.
The health department reached out to the community college for help in finding potential contact tracers because it wanted people who live in the communities where the virus spread, knowing that building trust and fostering cooperation are key.
“We made sure we had hires from all the zip codes with the highest rates of COVID-19,” said Meagan Pharis, assistant manager of research analytics at the health department.
They looked for candidates who speak multiple languages, are knowledgeable about immigrant concerns, and have experience with the virus that helps them empathize with families fighting it. Maddox was the one taking care of his family when they got sick in mid-March. He donned a mask and took meals and supplies to two households.
“I take this virus personal,” said Maddox. who also is working as a health aide as he pursues his associate’s degree in mass media.
Contact tracing jobs are wildly popular. The city receives hundreds of letters of interest within a day of posting the jobs, said James Garrow, a health department spokesperson. The department wanted to offer employment opportunities to local community college students at a time when many workers had been displaced.
“We wanted to kind of meet people … at the start of their careers and offer a pipeline to opportunity and gainful employment,” said Kezia Barnett, a health department research and evaluation associate.
Philadelphia has seen almost 35,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,700 deaths since the pandemic began. The city started a pilot contact tracing program last spring and launched its full program in July, once new cases had slowed to a level at which officials thought tracing could help and enough tracers were hired. The city also employs 25 case investigators who interview infected people and develop a list of their close contacts to pass on to tracers.
At first, the city was tracing about half its cases. As of last week, 75% of those who became infected were being contacted, Garrow said. And contact tracers have been able to reach almost 80% of the contacts identified by patients and get them to agree to quarantine, Garrow said.
Philadelphia is making progress, but still has work to do when it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19, said Lyle Ungar, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania. Bucks and Montgomery Counties trace more than 90% of their cases.
More rapid testing is crucial to making the work of contact tracers effective, said Ungar, who has argued that the city needs many more of them. Without rapid testing, the city may not identify many positive cases until those people have already spread the virus to others.
The city plans to hire 15 to 20 more contact tracers in the next month.
Community college students again are among the candidates, said Ayanna Washington, director of the college’s Career Connections program. For the first round of hiring, the college looked for candidates in its health, education, and communications programs, she said. More than 50 students attended a Zoom session to learn more about the job, and the career department helped people pull together their resumes and practice interviewing virtually, Washington said.
Lauren Lopez, 38, of Grays Ferry, had been taking a break from her job as a licensed practical nurse since the pandemic started to stay at home with her third grader. The contact tracing job, which pays about $38,000 a year to start, offered the opportunity to work from home. She started in July and is currently monitoring about 90 people. Most are pleasant and cooperative when she reaches out, she said. A small percentage hang up on her.
“Older people tend to be a little more surprised and concerned, sometimes a little upset,” said Lopez, who is pursuing a nursing degree. “They always come around and listen and end up being really receptive.”
Tracers are allowed to disclose the date possible exposures took place and sometimes general information about location, such as an “educational setting,” she said. But they do not disclose the identities of infected people.
Lopez said she starts conversations by asking people how they are feeling.
“That’s really the most important part,” she said.
The contact tracers offer connections to food delivery or to notify a person’s employer or school about the quarantine. They also provide information about testing and arrange to contact the person daily by text or phone through the quarantine period, to make sure they don’t become symptomatic.
The city expects the contact tracing program, funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to cost about $10 million if it runs at full capacity for an entire year. Contact tracers take an online training course developed by Johns Hopkins public health school and shadow experienced tracers to learn about the job before starting, said Garrow, the health department spokesperson.
Maddox said his prior work as a telemarketer helped him, and the college’s support was invaluable.
“Without CCP, I wouldn’t have been able to get this job,” he said, “and I’m thankful.”
Staff writer Sarah Gantz contributed to this article.