LIMA — Deb Roberts and Becky Reipenhoff didn’t enter 2020 with the expectation they’d be yelled at nearly every day by strangers. Now, they’re just used to it.
“We’ve had very very angry, frustrated, horrible things said to us,” Riepenhoff said.
Since February, the two have made thousands of calls as part of Allen County Public Health’s contact tracing team, and they’ve heard it all as the county agency works to try to keep people safe from their own actions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some dismiss their efforts entirely, alleging that the pandemic itself is just one large hoax. Others scoff at the department’s challenge of their civil liberties. Some just want to yell — mad and angry at a situation beyond their control.
They try to take it all in stride, emphasizing the need for a little empathy and trust. For those like them, it’s about the only thing they can do as numbers rise. Fight the fight. Stay focused, and when it’s all over, they’ll get back to their old jobs as public health watchdogs who can stay out of the public spotlight.
Evolution of contact tracing
Back when contact tracing was first introduced to the public as a way to hold down outbreaks, the tactic — meant to stop outbreaks by investigating new cases — operated a little differently. Workers personally made daily check-in calls with those who contracted the virus.
“It didn’t take too long before it got to a point where we couldn’t be contacting those people every day. We then switched it up to day 7 or day 14, and then got everybody to use the automated feature. Then in July, when everything spiked, we ended up getting help from the Ohio Department of Health’s contact tracing team,” said Jason Menchhofer, Mercer County’s health department’s administrator.
Simply put, the increase in the number of cases has forced health departments to change up how they conducted contact tracing as new waves emerged. Menchhofer said he remembers when 50 cases in a month had been a lot to take care of. Now, it’s more like 1,000 new cases in the same time period, and workers have had to streamline their efforts. Even then, they can’t keep up.
“That put things out of reach for us. We just could not get everything done that was initially expected of us,” Menchhofer said. “It just wasn’t humanly possible because of the volume that was coming at us.”
As that trend continues, public health departments have continued their contact tracing efforts as a way to combat outbreaks, but unlike earlier months, the reasons have somewhat shifted. Instead of just tracking and identifying those with cases to shut down the spread, public health officials have found that education has become an important part of the job. Some people just don’t believe anything they say.
Meanwhile, the numbers keep getting higher.
In a few regional zip codes — 45876 (Ottoville), 45853 (Kalida) and 45899 (Wren) — one in 10 people have tested positive for COVID-19 since March. A few others, primarily in Mercer and Putnam counties, are just a few cases away from the same measure.
“A lot of times, you just get frustrated. Is it an issue that we’re not communicating things correctly, or do people have COVID fatigue? At this point, there’s a lot of variables to gauge why it’s still happening,” Auglaize County Health Commissioner Oliver Fischer said. “It feels like a relentless attempt to get out from waves when you’re in the ocean. You get knocked down and get back up, and then you get hit with another wave.”
Multiple public health officials provided a few examples that they’ve seen play out since the pandemic. Due to privacy concerns, identifying details have been scrubbed from the following examples.
In one case, an individual had been found positive after exhibiting symptoms. In the day it took to communicate test results, the resident ended up interacting with 98 people.
In another case, a couple both tested positive for the virus. When contact tracers talked to them, one provided details about their home lives but failed to mention that they had school-aged children. Health officials only learned about it later in a follow-up call.
In the case of an area church, the pastor came down with COVID-19, but instead of providing details about other contacts in the congregation, the pastor let church members decide whether to call the health department. Some did. Others called to chew out health officials.
“We can only take what people are telling us over the phone as true,” Riepenhoff said. “We hope that they’re willing to tell you the truth.”
Menchhofer added, “Honestly, we really have a lot of doubt how much an effect it’s really having at this point. It seems to be spreading all over the community.”
Vocal minority or majority?
Despite some of the verbal abuse she’s dealt with, Roberts remains optimistic about the health department’s efforts. Among the horror stories, there have been plenty of great conversations with people worried and willing to take precautions to stop the spread of coronavirus, she said.
Some calls even begin with push-back and end friendly as details are worked out and callers find a sympathetic ear. She said those are the satisfying ones.
“Our focus is on every day to make our community a better place, to be a resource for them. But, yeah, it’s been really, really hard, but we’re proud of the work that we’ve done,” Roberts said. “… I guarantee you that we’re giving the best that we can. I think this community has a group of public health professionals that really care in the community.”
Riepenhoff added, “We do have a lot of people who do do the right thing. We forget about those people who are really trying to do the right thing, telling their friends, following the social distancing and limiting contacts.”
Health officials, too, understand some of the skepticism that they hear on the other end of the phone. Even as government employees, they respect the need to question the guidelines put forth by governmental entities, especially as information is updated and state orders change the status quo. Questions, however, can still be civil.
“It is hard, but you have to remain focused,” Roberts said. “Your job is to help the community.”
In the meantime, the work of public health officials and contact tracers continues as the Ohio Department of Health leans on county departments to push forward the state’s directives, and some department heads have made adjustments so they don’t overwork their own employees.
Menchhofer said the Mercer County Health Department eventually set a 7 p.m. deadline so people don’t work into the night. Other departments, such as the Auglaize County Health Department, have brought in mental health experts to try to equip officials with the tools necessary to fight what sometimes feels like a losing battle. ODH has also stressed the importance of time off and self-care for employees, Fischer said.
Burnouts, however, have happened. Usually, coworkers will step up to ensure the day’s work is done when one employee can’t muster the energy, Menchhofer said, and it’s normal for them to return the favor on a future date.
Either way, county health departments expect the end is in sight. Directives from ODH are now coming down the line about each county’s role in distributing the vaccine, which will be their focus as it becomes available. The goal is to get enough people vaccinated that herd immunity will be able to cut down on transmissions.
Until then, Roberts encouraged residents to keep wearing masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands.
“We’re fighting against all these things on television and the media. At the end of the day we know what we’re doing is the right thing,” Roberts said. “But it’s up to the public to decide, they have to be accountable. If we’re successful, they’ll follow the guidance.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.