NEW YORK - Wendy Kurlowicz is one of about two dozen employees of upstate Onondaga County who are tracking down people who have had close contact with people infected by the virus.
"We say, 'Through an investigation through someone who has tested positive, you have been named as someone who was at risk for exposure,'" said Kurlowicz, who is the director of community environmental health for the county.
It's called contract tracing, and it's coming to the five boroughs and the rest of the state in a big way. The de Blasio administration already has hired 1,000 people to join its test-and-trace team in the first wave of a force that could grow to 5,000.
The state has offered contact tracing jobs to 600 people and hopes to recruit at least 6,000 more.
NY1 reached out to contact tracers upstate to get an understanding of what the work is like.
Kurlowicz usually manages programs like restaurant inspections and home lead testing in and around Syracuse, but in March, she was temporarily re-assigned to contact tracing.
"March 16. I'll never forget the day," she said.
Now, she spends hours on the phone daily, calling people who have tested positive for coronavirus to explain that they must isolate and ask who they have had close contact with, so those people can be told to quarantine for 14 days. It’s a critical step to stop the spread of the sometimes-deadly virus.
Kurlowicz said most cases lead to a few close contacts, like people they live with, but some cases can lead to 20 or more.
"If your conversation is 10-15 minutes at length with no barrier protection, like a mask, and closer than six feet, that puts you, you're not at low risk anymore," she said.
Kurlowicz’s background in nursing is helpful, but not a prerequisite. She completed the free public online training from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The five-hour training is required by the state and city for tracing jobs. As of Friday, nearly 200,000 had enrolled.
"What this course does is pull out all of the issues that are important for people to know to be a contact tracer that aren't jurisdictionally specific or aren't specific to the area," said epidemiologist Melissa Marx, an assistant professor of international health and infectious disease at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Knowing the local community matters too.
“That helps them build trust with the people they are talking to,” said Dr. Patrick Kachur, a professor at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.
Also important, the experts say, is being able to effectively communicate with compassion and empathy. The health of New Yorkers depends on it.