What it's like to be a contact tracer during the coronavirus pandemic

Contact tracers have been working hard behind the scenes of New Zealand's COVID-19 protection response to find all the close contacts of the country's 1386 confirmed cases.

The tracing teams are made up of 190 workers at the National Close Contact service, along with a number of DHB workers who worked with the confirmed cases to find and contact anyone they may have infected.

The Project talked to Public Health Officer Dr Maria Pointer who says the tracers are working hard through the pandemic and know what they are doing.

"It's a little bit like a team in a hospital in a way in that you have cases which are yours to deal with… It's a lot of time on the phone and drawing maps a little bit like family trees of how cases are connected.

"We are pretty practised so we do have teams that have a lot of experience in that. As you would be aware we had a big measles outbreak last year and we had thousands of people we were talking to over the course of last year as well. This is business as usual."

Those who are diagnosed with COVID-19 go into strict quarantine and then help with the tracing process.

They are asked to make two lists - one for all the casual contacts they've had over the last five days, and one for all their close contacts.

The "close contact" list is the most urgent and it ranges from those they've potentially shared bodily fluid with and those who they might have sat two metres away for 15 minutes or more.

Everyone on this list must self-isolate and monitor themselves for COVID-19 symptoms for two weeks so if they are infected, they don't pass the virus on to anyone else.

Pointer says the tracers employ a range of different methods to find as many contacts as they can.

"We don't just ask people to look at their memories, we ask them to look through things like their bank statements, often on their phones to see where they went to when we were still allowed to go out. 

"Also sometimes their phone records help to who they might have been in contact with to arrange a meeting up."

She also says they struggle with some COVID-19 patients being secretive about who they've been with or where they have been but the tracers always respect their privacy and won't divulge who has been diagnosed with coronavirus.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has hinted new apps could help do the contact tracing automatically, but Pointer says it wouldn't solve all of the problems.

"There's a place for apps, and that would make some things easier in terms of being able to have a list of who people were in contact with or the places they may have been. The questions come down to privacy. 

"If we are talking about apps tracing peoples' movements in terms of location data then it can sometimes create more problems than it solves because at the end of the day we still need to talk to people to work out how much at risk they might have put other people."