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Contact tracing jobs: a look behind the scenes of a pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many people have been working tirelessly away from the limelight to assist the public health response doing what’s become known as contact tracing. By interviewing positive cases, retracing their steps, contacting close contacts, and communicating with those in isolation, contact tracers have been the backbone of the Australian response to COVID-19.

Contact tracing jobs require patience, attention to detail, and a passion for public health.

Rachel Smith, a Deakin Bachelor of Nursing/Bachelor of Public Health and Health Promotion graduate, is one of those people who have worked incredibly hard in an effort to keep the community safe.

What is it like to work in contact tracing?

There are many jobs for which the phrase no two days are the same is applicable. Whether it’s because you’re dealing with a volatile stock market or you’re responding to the latest media attack on your client, some jobs inherently leave you guessing. If you take that on-the-job chaos and add to it a global pandemic, you might start to understand the lives of our contact tracers.

As a Victorian contact tracing team leader, Rachel Smith has had plenty of experience in a very short period.

Rachel is one of several team leaders managing a team of public health officers that respond to all things related to case contact and outbreak management.

‘We do case interviews to help determine their infectious period and who they’ve had contact with, we interview close contacts, we are the contact point for those currently in isolation, and we also look after several different settings for exposure site management,’ Rachel says.

‘Earlier in 2021, we also helped manage mass gatherings and coordinated with other organisations, such as the AFL, to help implement COVID-safe plans and plan for future outbreaks. Although, lockdown has meant we haven’t really encountered large-scale events since the Carlton-Geelong match at the MCG.’

On any given day, Rachel and her team are rapidly responding to multiple urgent matters at once. From helping someone in isolation to access welfare support to completing in-depth interviews with confirmed cases, every task is vital and time sensitive.

Rachel and her team are also on the forefront of any changes in medical and health advice when it comes to implementation. From the expansion to, and subsequent removal of, secondary close contacts to the reduced isolation time for close contacts who are fully vaccinated, the landscape of contact tracing is constantly changing.

‘Every shift begins with a meeting where we discuss the priorities for the day and any changes that are coming into effect,’ Rachel says.

‘Along with all the daily tasks that we attend to and the thousands of emails we receive, we’re also working in the background on things that we know will be implemented by the chief health officer in the coming days and weeks.’

'Along with all the daily tasks that we attend to and the thousands of emails we receive, we’re also working in the background on things that we know will be implemented by the chief health officer in the coming days and weeks.'

Rachel Smith,
Deakin Graduate

How to become a contact tracer

COVID-19 has brought to the forefront many jobs and roles that prior to this world-transforming event, went largely unnoticed. From immunologists and epidemiologists to chief health officers and public health officers, the range of roles based in public health are vast.

Contact tracing wasn’t something that the general public, or Rachel Smith, had heard of before.

In 2020, Rachel was finishing up her double degree, a Bachelor of Nursing/Bachelor of Public Health and Health Promotion at Deakin, when she began looking for jobs. Having signed up for job alerts on LinkedIn, Rachel was notified of an opening in the Department of Health for the role of public health officer.

‘I saw the opportunity come up and I thought, “oh well, I might as well apply,” and a couple of weeks later, I was a contact tracer,’ Rachel says.

‘I never would have thought that I’d be here, but I really love it. I think it plays to my strengths as I really enjoyed communicating with people and there’s communication all day long both with everyone in my team and with members of the public. I really enjoy breaking down theories around infection control and how COVID spreads, and seeing them understand it.’

Why contact tracing is a role like no other

The job of a contact tracer is unique and fundamental to Australia’s COVID response. Although the position is brand new compared to other public health, it is a good way to quickly gain practical experience in the field.

If you’re considering taking up employment as a contact tracer and wondering if you’re qualified, Rac­­hel Smith says all kinds of people are a part of the team.

‘I’ve noticed that the Department of Health has taken in people from all different walks of life,’ she says.

‘We have people who previously were nurses, people who are paramedics, dentists, and I think we even had people from travel agencies and airlines. I think it’s fantastic because it brings together so many different people’s strengths from niche fields.’

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