Abdoul Bouda was searching for a stranger.
As he stared at his tablet that was issued by New York City Test & Trace Corps, he regarded the name and address for the mystery woman, but knew the phone number was out of date. The corps had already attempted to reach her.
So he tried the door of her apartment building in the Pelham Bay neighborhood of the Bronx. It swung open, unlocked.
“We are lucky that this is open,” Bouda said. “Usually we need to knock and ask for permission.”
Bouda wandered through the maze-like, dimly lit hall until he found the woman’s door. He rang the bell and identified himself. The woman cracked the door open. She was masked up and visibly exhausted. Her voice quavered as she spoke, raspy with coughing. A scruffy shih tzu stood behind her legs, eyeing the contact tracers with suspicion.
It was an awkward but necessary moment — one familiar to members of the Test & Trace Corps. The people Bouda and his colleagues visit in person are often the COVID afflicted who need their attention the most. It might be because of a language barrier or limited access to technology like smartphones or broadband internet. Or their chaotic work schedule makes it hard to book resources like testing appointments online or by phone.
Since New York City Health + Hospitals launched the corps in June 2020, its members have visited more than 200,000 COVID patients and their close contacts at home. They’ve spoken with them in more than 40 different languages (Bouda speaks three himself.). They’ve set people up with dog walkers, grocery delivery, cell phones and beds in isolation hotels.
So Bouda was unfazed as the door cracked open. He launched into his spiel, which was equal parts health check-in, COVID crash course, social network exploration and referral service. It was the woman’s second bout with the coronavirus since January, she said, so some of the facts Bouda shared were probably things she already knew.
This work has helped New Yorkers through their tough isolation periods — and it has now come to a close. The end of April brought the conclusion of the corps program in its current form. In the week before its shuttering, Gothamist accompanied a handful of contact tracers on one of their last days on the job. Along the way, they shared what drew them to this work, the highs and lows and what’s next for them.
“It was scary for us”
Earlier that day, Bouda and some colleagues met on a sunlit bench at St. James Park in Fordham. People walked dogs and rode bikes, savoring the spring weather. It was a far cry from the world the Bronx and the rest of the city saw two years ago, said Ronald Gibbs, another veteran contact tracer.
“You didn't even hear birds chirping outside,” he said of the first few months of the pandemic. Like so many New Yorkers, Gibbs lost his job as COVID ravaged the city. He worked as an isolation manager at a hotel for coronavirus patients for a few months, then joined the Test & Trace Corps.
“I’m trying to figure out how to feed my family and take care of everything,” he recounted. “My family was pretty nervous about it, because no one even knew about what COVID was.”
Jennifer Laub, who had recently left a long career in health care IT, was looking for something new when the pandemic hit. She recalled watching then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings and feeling called to action when he shared a hotline for people who wanted to work as contact tracers.
“When he put the number on the screen, it's like, ‘I'm going to call,’” she said. “And I just felt compelled to not sit on my hands wondering what was going to happen next.”
College students also made up a big portion of their initial ranks. Bouda was working on his thesis for his neuroscience degree at Queens College. Annie Seugling, who was working as a freelance contemporary dancer at the time, was studying biology at Hunter College.
“I graduated in May 2020, which is a hard time to be looking at job prospects,” Seugling said. “It was really nice to have something to land on, and it was especially nice to be able to help during this time.”
Still, those early days were stressful, especially as case numbers mounted. Seugling said she’d sometimes walk miles to visit 15 or more people in a day.
“Contact tracing should come with Heelys,” Gibbs said, referencing the wheeled sneakers, “because you’re all over the place.”
Sometimes, clients welcomed them and appreciated the information and resources they had to share, Gibbs, Seugling and others said. Other times, they were ignored, refused or even threatened during visits. The sick people they assisted were scared, distrustful and often angry or grieving.
You're sitting there, and you're empathizing with these people and you really just want to be able to help them.
“It can be really heart-wrenching,” Seugling said. “A lot of them have lost loved ones. A lot of them are scared. You're sitting there, and you're empathizing with these people and you really just want to be able to help them. Some days it’s a lot to take on.”
The contact tracers Gothamist interviewed all described instances of arriving at a COVID patient’s home and discovering a medical emergency in progress. Seugling had a client faint during their conversation. Laub discovered a diabetic client on the verge of ketoacidosis, a complication that can be fatal if untreated. Bouda once rang a client’s doorbell and received no answer — only to get a worrisome call from the person after his shift had ended.
“They were talking, but the breathing wasn’t OK,” Bouda said. “I’m not an expert in that, but I knew something was going on.”
The corps members get trained by the city, but they don’t deliver hands-on medicine or clinical care. But in all these cases, the contact tracers were able to get help for the folks in distress. And at the peak of the first COVID wave, they may have been the only people to see them all day.
“It was divine timing for sure,” Laub said.
“New Yorkers have learned”
As the pandemic has evolved, the role of contact tracing has changed, too. The highly contagious omicron variant pushed the city’s COVID infrastructure to its breaking point. It infected more people than contact tracers could reach, even working overtime.
“I cannot say that we were blindsided, but it was overwhelming,” said Kathleen Daniel, director of the door-to-door program at NYC Health + Hospitals. “We were already tired. Nobody knocks on doors for two years straight.”
The public also became more knowledgeable about the virus and best practices for stopping the spread, noted Daniel. Often, COVID-positive New Yorkers had already started the contact tracing process before corps members even arrived at their door.
“People would say, ‘Yes, I called my aunt, I called my sister and I told my boss,’” Daniel said. “People knew what to do. New Yorkers have learned.”
Vaccination and at-home testing also made universal contact tracing less of a priority. In February 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance on case investigation and contact tracing, saying that such resources are best reserved for communal settings and people at risk of severe disease. The move was part of a larger pivot to focusing mostly on the worst outcomes of COVID rather than every single case.
Daniel said the city will follow these recommendations and that the health department will be responsible for all remaining contact tracing. A few hundred corps members will stay on at the health department. But the rest -- including Bouda, Gibbs, Seugling, Laub and Daniel -- will be out of a job.
Bouda plans on applying to graduate schools. Seugling and Gibbs will return to their old passions — dance and entrepreneurship, respectively. Laub will spend time with her two young granddaughters.
But first, they’ll all take some time to recharge after two years of putting their own health on the line for the greater good.
“After you pour everything out to someone else, you’ve got to take care of yourself,” Gibbs said. “You’ve got to readjust your life. Everything has to come back to center.”