How I became a COVID-19 contact tracer

 

When Deborah Judd decided to become a nurse decades ago, she never thought she'd end up as a front-line worker in the middle of a global pandemic. She shares how she became a contact tracer.

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DEBORAH JUDD, 49, NURSE/CONTACT TRACER

Not many people realised our role existed before COVID-19 but I've been a contact tracer for six years.

There's no room for error in this job, we have a responsibility to keep the community safe and prevent the spread of an infectious disease.

COVID-19 is unlike anything I've worked on before. I'm a nurse and previously traced illnesses like measles, typhoid and gastro cases in residential aged-care and child care facilities.

Deborah Judd has been a contact tracer for six years and is now working to keep trace coronavirus in Queensland. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Deborah Judd has been a contact tracer for six years and is now working to keep trace coronavirus in Queensland. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

Last year, I worked on the measles outbreak in south Brisbane which was high-pressure but we could offer vaccines to close contacts to prevent them from contracting it.

Without an immunisation for COVID-19, our job is even more vital.

Our day begins with a briefing of what has happened overnight. We are notified by the laboratory if there's been a positive case.

When that comes in, we are the first person to call the individuals and deliver their diagnosis.

That's different to what we normally do because time really matters with this infection. We're met with various reactions on that call. People are shocked, upset, while others are expecting it.

We spend the next hour, or sometimes hours, on the phone with them going through every detail of their movements.

We look at what they've done in the last 10-14 days to determine when they could have contracted the virus.

It's key we find out what they did in the infectious period, which is 48 hours before symptoms begin.

We need to know who they've come into contact with, where they went and how long they were at those locations.

We have Case Report Forms which are like standard templates to guide the questions and information we receive during our interviews. We can't make assumptions.

If we miss anything, it could mean we overlook an individual who could potentially go on to develop the infection.

Medical worker taking a swab for corona virus sample from potentially infected woman with the isolation gown or protective suits and surgical face masks. Picture: iStock
Medical worker taking a swab for corona virus sample from potentially infected woman with the isolation gown or protective suits and surgical face masks. Picture: iStock

People often struggle to remember where they have been. We suggest they look back over bank statements, receipts or Google Maps to track their movements.

Some cases can be straightforward but when there's been community transmission, it can be complex.

We found one case might have one or two close contacts and others may have nearly 100 close contacts. All of those close contacts need a phone call.

I remember one Saturday, we had 25 positive cases come through in a day. The team worked so hard to go through each case and their contacts.

We have really challenging days like that one but when you're exhausted, you have to keep going. You have to. It could mean people's safety if you don't.

I have never made so many phone calls as I have this year.

We used to have eight nurses who made up the contact tracing team in the Metro South Public Health Unit and now we have expanded to 30 or 40 across professions including environmental health officers, epidemiologists, nurses and doctors.

It's a high pace environment that can be stressful and mean 12-hour shifts, but it's rewarding.

We recently received some 'thank you' cards from a local state school and the joy on the faces of my colleagues from this simple gesture was amazing.

Helping people and keeping them safe is why I got into nursing in the first place.

I grew up in Tweed Heads and studied nursing at the University of New England in Lismore.

My mum was an assistant in nursing, she worked in residential aged care, and friends were training to be nurses. I was surrounded by it and fell in love with. I never looked back.

I completed my graduate year at the Princess Alexander hospital in Brisbane before deciding travel. I worked in London then went onto Edinburgh where I stayed for about six or seven years and met my Scotsman husband, Gordon.

While travelling the world together, I realised I wanted a change in direction. I decided to combine my two passions and pursue travel medicine.

We first moved to Melbourne where I got a job in a travel clinic before moving into the public health sector, where I work now in Brisbane.

My role was to prevent illness and prepare travellers for what they might come across while overseas, how they should manage it and what immunisations they should receive.

It was a natural progression into contact tracing. I never imagined I'd end up working on the front line during a global pandemic.

Originally published as How I became a COVID-19 contact tracer



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