'We Were Frantic': COVID Through the Diary of a Contact Tracer

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San Francisco librarian Lisa Fagundes was redeployed in the early days of the pandemic to work as a contact tracer.  (Courtesy Jasmin Serim)

Last spring, when the San Francisco Public Library closed its doors after the first statewide pandemic shelter-at-home order, librarian Lisa Fagundes started a new job. She, along with 20,000 other city and state workers, was redeployed to contact tracing duty.

Instead of answering questions about e-books and the library’s sci-fi collection, she called people exposed to COVID-19 and answered their questions about symptoms, testing and quarantine. KQED profiled Lisa last May about the job switch, and also asked her to begin keeping an audio diary about her experience.

Over the past year, she filed three dozen diary entries. As the months went by and infections surged in the summer and again in the winter, the entries became more frantic, more emotional. Then, they got personal. You can hear – in real time – how the pandemic changes Lisa. How it picks her up, twists her in all directions, and drops her on the other side. Just like it’s done to all of us. Her journey over the past year is our journey, too.

Tap the play button above to listen to the The California Report Magazine's edited compilation of Lisa’s contact tracer diary, or read through the transcript below.

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May 27, 2020: I just finished my shift. It was very slow. I only had one contact. But personally, I think all of us, but definitely me, are wondering what's going to happen after this last, it was just Memorial Day and I know a lot of people went out and went to restaurants. And so it's like, OK, are a bunch of people going to start getting sick?

June 1, 2020: I had a pretty good shift tonight. Everybody was pretty compliant. Nobody was in a bad mood. I did have a rough weekend. I had an uncle call out contact tracing on his social media and say that it was the government being invasive and you shouldn't answer contact tracers’ questions, and it's evil. I keep laughing when this happens that people think that we're some sort of nefarious government conspiracy when we can't even get our database to not malfunction sometimes. So we're not nefarious. We're just throwing this together on the fly.

June 8, 2020: We had a little cluster of people who were all in their 20s and they got sick because somebody at a party had COVID. And I was like, ‘Here it is! People are loosening up, from Memorial Day and whatnot,’ and it's like, OK, we're going to start getting these contacts that are kids at parties.

June 29, 2020: Today, we had 16 pages of contacts. It's like almost 200.

June 30, 2020: We had a lot. We had 20 pages of the contacts. It's just getting crazy busy.

Librarian-turned contact tracer Lisa Fagundes with her dog Clem. (Jasmin Serim)

July 1, 2020: It was a very hectic and stressful shift team leading tonight. I don't even know where to begin. It was just so busy and we were frantic. And we're getting to that point now where a lot of the contacts are more annoyed that we're calling and they're not polite. They're getting frustrated. I understand some of it. We have this system, it’s a little bit clunky, they get multiple calls sometimes. And we're also starting to encounter more of the segment of the population that doesn't trust this whole system, that doesn't trust the Department of Public Health in general. And I totally understand that for some communities. But it makes doing the work very difficult because they’re a lot more curt and resistant or suspicious or scared and upset. So, yeah, it was just a lot of that tonight. It was exhausting. I feel totally fried and also completely wired.

July 13, 2020: There’s not much I can say, it was hectic. We had like 10 tracers tonight, so we were really busy because we're just trying to tear down this massive surge. We had a ton of cops. There was a cop that went to work and he tested positive for COVID and then we had to call all 60 coworkers of his. And we had a lot of parties, a lot of parties. We had people come in from Sacramento to come to a party in San Francisco and someone there was sick. So now we have to call all those people. And a group of people, all parents, decided to hire a couple babysitters and to have their kids taken to an impromptu summer camp, and then one of the babysitters got COVID. So now all these kids – all these toddlers – are contacts and we have to call their parents. We're just seeing so much more of that. Before it was literally all pretty much the working poor. And now it's a lot of younger people, a lot of English speakers, a lot of people going to parties.

And our contact tracing rates have slowed down because we have so many more contacts to put in that it's taking us longer to reach them all. So then people are running around exposing other people more, so, it's nerve wracking. I definitely had a tracer on last Friday who needed to debrief and process with me after the shift. And she was just crying, and it's just so hard, these conversations are so hard, and she's Latina, and she talks to a lot of Latinx families. It’s like, ‘Well, this is basically secondary trauma. You're telling somebody really bad news and you're hearing how hard it's going to be for them not to go to work. And it's just so unnecessary and so frustrating and so depressing. And it's really hard to tell people terrible things.’

July 31, 2020: It's almost 3 a.m. I haven't done one of these in a while because it's gotten really crazy. It's been really hectic. And the surge is just – it’s just kind of getting to everybody. And I'm doing this right now because I can't sleep. I've been up just nonstop thinking and I worked until about 11:30 p.m. tonight. My first meeting was at 9 a.m. All of our departments are super backed up. So the food referral department got backed up, so now the contact tracers have to do that work. And then the test scheduling department got backed up, so the contact tracers are doing that work. And the tracers are starting to get like super frustrated and frantic and depressed and it's just crazy.

And then in the middle of a shift last week, my dog died and it was so, so sad. And I haven't even had a second to grieve, really, because I'm so busy. And I just remember thinking, like, I was relieved because she is old. And, I'm so busy. I couldn't take care of her, I couldn't because I was like, I can't take her out. I can't leave the computer. I can't leave my computer. I can't go anywhere for five to seven hours, I'm stuck. This is really fucking hard. And everybody's just working so hard. I'm super proud to be a part of it, and these are just such awesome people and it's also so fucking hard. So it's been a really shitty week. This has been a shitty week, and I'm just so scared that we're going to end up like New York City and I don't know. I just don't know how that's going to be. I don't want to know.

Aug. 6, 2020: I think it's Aug. 6. I don't know. Last week was like a dark cloud and this week it's like, OK. We can do this.

Aug. 29, 2020: Oh, what day is it? It's a Saturday. It's actually been a really chill week. The numbers are going down. Hopefully that stays. It's much better than July so far. July was just a nightmare of a month.

Lisa Fagundes contact tracing at her kitchen table with her new puppy, Jonesy, in fall 2020. (Jasmin Serim)

Nov. 10, 2020: It is ... I don't know. I think it's Nov. 10. We've been getting busier.

Nov. 18, 2020: Everything is surging.

Nov. 25, 2020: It's the day before Thanksgiving. So, yeah, we're definitely in surge. Everything is insane. My brain feels like it's melting. Today is the first day that I didn't cry on shift in two weeks. Every other day I have, but I'm hoping the numbers come down. But it doesn't look like anything is coming down, so we'll see.

Contact tracer Lisa Fagundes (right) with her partner Jasmin Serim and their puppy, Jonesy. (Lisa Fagundes)

Jan. 14, 2021: So Christmas happened and the surge went insane. It was just bonkers town. For Christmas, I was supposed to go to my cousin's and we didn't do that. On Christmas Eve, I was supposed to go see my mom and we moved it to a different day. It was my mom and my partner and me, my stepfather, my brother, my sister-in-law and their 4-year-old, my niece. And we were really good. We all sat outside, like 95% of the time. We were all definitely socially distanced and wearing masks, except my niece took her mask off about halfway through. And then, sure enough, two days later, we find out that she had been exposed. Her teacher tested positive for COVID. It was, holy shit. I was so mad. I was so mad and embarrassed. I was mad at myself for hanging out with my family, even though I knew it was a risk. I was embarrassed to be the person who's a contact tracer who then got exposed hanging out on the frickin’ holidays, which is the thing we knew we weren't supposed to do.

I didn't actually get contact traced. The school didn't call anybody. I think they just called my brother, so I didn't actually get the experience of being called by a contact tracer, which would have been pretty meta. We all got tested. Everybody was negative. It was a false alarm. But it just really sunk in that this is psychotic, this shit is just everywhere. I didn't know anybody with COVID for months, and then my niece almost got it. I have my uncle – the one who told me that contact tracing was bullshit and masks are for sheep – he got it. He has it right now. I had multiple friends get it. It's just, suddenly everybody has it.

And I did also find out on Christmas Day that my grandma got COVID. They told us about a week late. They're like, ‘Oh yeah, your grandma has it. She's out of her isolation in a few days and she's doing great.’ This is my 101-year-old grandmother who lives in a nursing home. So I'm like, hmm? I doubt she's doing great. And then sure enough, they call my father at 5 a.m. on Christmas Eve and they say that she's doing really badly. And then we heard nothing about it on Christmas Day. And then the day after Christmas Day, they called him and said she had passed. They said she passed that morning, but I was like, she died on Christmas and they just didn't want to tell us.

My grandma was fucking awesome. She was just an awesome lady. She was really funny and she was just a badass lady. She survived the Spanish flu and then to die because she's in an old folks home where that shit spreads like wildfire in there. And I just am so sad to think that she drowned in her own lungs by herself.

Feb. 15, 2021: There's some rumors going around that the librarians might be deactivated finally and able to go back to work. If we don't have tons of cases then they don't really need us, so this crazy time might be coming to an end for me soon. We're all kind of sad and we've all been feeling a little pre-nostalgic about the end. The end is near.

March 9, 2021: This might be my last recording. We’re kind of just chillin’ a little bit. And they have pivoted into calling people about vaccinations. I just got trained on that today, in fact. And then also, as schools open up, we still have a ton of school contacts, where somebody at a school has COVID and then they have to pretty much shut down that whole pod of the school.

So for the future, I have a lot of mixed feelings. Part of me wants to go back to the library and just be done with all this because it is just constant change, and I'm tired. I'm tired of making difficult phone calls. I'm tired of helping people process making difficult phone calls, I'm tired of it. I'm physically, mentally tired of it.

And another part of me, I'm going to miss the camaraderie of going through something like this. I'm going to miss the public health knowledge, like, I see some of the library reference questions, and it's all e-books and all this stuff, and I'm like, ugh, am I ready to go back and answer e-book questions instead of vaccine questions? We're all strangely sad and mourning the end of this already. But also, of course it's better that the pandemic might be going away, you know, so it's complicated. But it's been such a magical, depressing and difficult and hard, but also empowering and strong and fascinating and touching time. And I feel very lucky for that. Yeah. So that's I think that's it. Thank you so much for letting me ramble at you for a year, almost.

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