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Public Employee Press: PEP Talk

Contact Tracers

In May New York City hired 3,000 disease detectives as part of its COVID-19 response

Public Health Adviser Bonnie Fachler is one of 3,000 new Test and Trace Corp. employees fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. As essential workers they organized themselves for better salaries under Local 768.

“I don’t want to seem nosy, but I am going to ask you an awful lot of questions about how you are feeling, where you have been, and a lot of other personal stuff,” Bonnie Fachler said.

As a New York City H+H case investigator who traces COVID-19 contacts, Fachler asks the right questions of people who test positive for the coronavirus — and she expects answers.

“Those answers,” she said, “can save lives.”

How New Yorkers respond to the city’s corps of 3,000 contact tracers and the questions they ask can curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus. These disease detectives are part of a core group of essential workers in DC 37 that New York City needs to reopen and restart its economic engine of businesses, stores, schools, and restaurants.

New York City has always had Public Health Advisers who have helped track outbreaks of tuberculosis, measles, HIV/AIDS, Legionnaire’s disease, and Ebola. But the coronavirus is far more insidious, more stealth, and more deadly, with no cure or vaccine to date.

Glen Sullivan, a former phlebotomist, is a dedicated contact tracer in the city’s fight against the spread of COVID-19 in the South Bronx.
“Until we have a vaccine, contact tracing, testing, social distancing and sanitary protocols are what the city relies on to stop COVID-19,” said Local 768 President Fitz Reid, who represents the NYC Test and Trace Corp. employees. “Their work is vital to preventing a surge of new cases.”

New York City’s coronavirus infection numbers dropped significantly in mid-September to 4,425 from more than 270,000 in April when the pandemic was rampant. Health experts say preventive protocols, including masks, are still very much needed.

Tracers use laptops, phones, and questionnaires to track down, identify, and monitor every person who a confirmed COVID-19-positive patient has been in close contact with, even while asymptomatic.

Health experts define close contact as anyone within six feet, for at least 15 minutes. That can be any number of people. Tracers then inform each person that they may have been exposed to the virus, and ask them to quarantine for two weeks.

“Our work is an evolving one,” Fachler said. “Our training continues daily on issues such as trauma-informed care, cultural sensitivity, intimate partner violence, LGBTQ concepts and terms, how to effectively use language interpreters, inter-religious awareness, and technology issues.”

Contact tracers have a rigorous schedule and are closely monitored. “Our calls are recorded and some go on for an hour or longer,” said Fachler, a former college professor who taught physical therapy for 12 years. “Our calls are critiqued by our supervisors to help improve our performance. The phone calls can get very intense. People trust us.

“The training we get from H+H is outstanding,” Fachler added. “For me, this is the best job ever. I get to experience heartfelt thanks and people’s gratitude in multiple languages. I’ve even been able to help women with COVID get into domestic abuse shelters because we’ve seen a huge increase in family violence during the pandemic.”

Glen Sullivan, a Community Engagement Specialist, said he took an online course Johns Hopkins University of Medicine offered and applied for the H+H contact tracer job. “Back in January, as I read about this virus, I realized this is disease is BIG,” he said. “I realized my community needed help.”

A former phlebotomist for 17 years, Sullivan tells clients he meets in his South Bronx assignment, “They are not alone. Anything they need — food, a hotel room, notes to an employer, the resources are there.

“We look them in the eye and reassure them the care, services, and help are available. A COVID diagnosis is not the end of the world,” Sullivan said. “It takes a balance of empathy and respect. We lead with precaution and not fear. As a caregiver, you have to have that; it goes hand in hand with the job.”

In June, Mayor de Blasio shifted the Test and Trace program to NYC H+H from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

“DC 37 won the right to represent these H+H employees because the union represents workers in similar titles who do the same work,” said Organizing Director Pearson Woods.

Public Health Advisers hired in the Test and Trace program will work for NYC H+H for 18 months. While they do not have due process, they are protected under Weingarten rights and can ask that a union rep be present at any meeting they believe will lead to discipline or firing.

“DC 37 is doing all it can to protect members’ jobs. We are focusing on safety, PPE, and COVID-19-related issues, and we have stepped in to reverse firings. We hold weekly labor-management meetings to make sure H+H respects our contract and workers’ rights,” said Cynthia Keyes-Padilla, director of DC 37 Hospitals and Healthcare Professionals Division. “We let the members know their union is here for them.”

Not all contact tracers belong to a union, however. Those who do not are missing out on both salary and benefits. Contact tracers who do not belong to a union earn $50,000 annually, far below the salary of those who are union members.

“H+H contact tracers should understand that by being represented by DC 37, their pay package has increased by over 50 percent, the additional value of DC 37-negotiated benefits in the Health Services Contract,” Reid explained.

Fachler agreed, saying, “We came together as a union to leverage and negotiate a much better compensation package for three titles.”

  • Local 768 Public Health Adviser Level 1 (Case Investigator) earn $57,000 annually;
  • PHA Level 2 (Community Engagement Specialist) earn $62,000 annually, and
  • Supervising PHA Level 3 (Case Investigator Supervisor) earn $65,000 annually.

As DC 37 members, these H+H employees also get fully paid health insurance through HIP, drug, dental, optical, legal services and other benefits, paid holidays, and 10 accrued vacation days. City contact tracers must sign a membership card at to join the union.

Almost half of those hired as contact tracers live in communities hard-hit by the pandemic, neighborhoods that are predominately Black and Latino.

While Black people are 13% of the U.S. population, they disproportionately account for 54% of COVID-19 deaths. DOHMH reports that as densely-populated New York City became the epicenter of the pandemic, 23,780 COVID-19 related deaths were reported.

The U.S. now leads the world with 207,000 COVID-related deaths, and more than 7 million COVID-19 cases. The COVID-19 virus ranks as the third highest cause of death for Americans behind heart disease and cancer, according to NPR.