At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, plans had to be put in place to track the spread of the virus and find potential cases.
To do that, NHS Grampian recruited teams of contact tracers with the right skills to find out where the virus was circulating.
More than 200 people from a range of different backgrounds came together to play their part.
And although they have never met in person, they have formed a lasting bond that will endure beyond the pandemic.
The Evening Express spoke to two of them to find out more about their experiences.
Carole Mitchell, contact tracing team leader
I’m a registered nurse and I’ve been working in clinical areas for more than 20 years, initially in a surgical high dependency unit and then I took up a Macmillan lung cancer specialist nurse role. After that, I moved up to Summerfield House to join the complaints and feedback service, and I was there for about a year.
When Covid happened, public health was setting up numerous things with regard to the pandemic. At first, we had a very small team and I came down to help out with that because there was a greater need for input. There were another three team leaders at that point and we were doing all the contact tracing.
As time went on and numbers increased we started employing contact tracers. Our numbers are pretty huge now in comparison to where they were.
There can be quite difficult cases and that’s where the contact tracers have our support. They can come to us at any time if they feel they don’t quite know how to manage a case. It might be they are not sure of the right advice to provide individuals, or it might be a case they are speaking to someone who is pretty unwell. That’s where the clinical team leaders can take over the case and assess them.
We have more than 200 contact tracers at the moment and I have now set up a support service for them. They can come and have one-to-one confidential meetings. They are doing a valued role and an excellent job but at the same time, Covid is still affecting a lot of them out there as well.
If there are days where we are quiet and the numbers are low, we have regular communication with the national centre and we will liaise with them on a daily basis. If there are cases in other parts of the country we will step in to help. We have done that since day one and we will continue to do it. It also works the other way – the support is there for us if the tables are turned.
We allocate cases out to our contact tracers and nobody knows at that point what it’s going to bring. It could be someone with very few close contacts or it could be the other extreme where you have someone with 80-plus.
For a school case alone, you could have one case but 30, 40 or 50 contacts.
The number we have traced is absolutely huge. We are also now phoning contacts back again – when numbers were high we would make one call and give them the support they needed, but now we are able to phone them back again and make sure they are supported.
I’ve developed new skills. My knowledge base in public health has increased hugely over a short space of time. I’ve learned to adapt to a new area. We are a huge team and we get on immensely well. A lot of good friendship has been made and that will continue – the plan is, once Covid is over, to have a party because it would be wonderful to meet people face-to-face as opposed to on a screen.
I would love to stay in public health. It’s not something I thought would interest me prior to starting this role but if the opportunity was there I would love to continue. I probably wouldn’t have thought of that had it not been for Covid.
Ian Anderson, contact tracing practitioner
I was in the police for 30 years and carried out numerous roles there. I spent a considerable amount of time in traffic, which really doesn’t translate into contact tracing particularly well, but I also spent four years at the police college at Tulliallan in a training role. That included training people to carry out investigative interviews. Although it’s a completely different scenario, the mechanics of how you get people to divulge the information you are needing is the same technique.
Last October me and my wife had grabbed the opportunity while we’d been released from lockdown to go to a cottage in Speyside when I happened upon an advert for contact tracers, and I thought that was something I could do to be helpful.
Right at the start, I had contacted NHS Grampian and other agencies to volunteer to be involved. While I was in the police I studied for a masters degree in emergency planning management, so I thought that might have slotted in somewhere. At that stage, there was nothing although I went onto a list of reserves.
Within about two weeks I was sitting in front of a computer with all the kit thinking I didn’t have a clue what to do! However, we got through it. Fortunately, at that stage there was a little bit of a lull and then suddenly we were hit with nearly 400 cases a day and it became quite intense at that stage.
My very first case was from outside Grampian. I thought it was some kind of test because this person seemed to have so many breaches. I genuinely thought someone was winding me up but it was a genuine case.
It’s quite daunting for a contact tracer to pick up a case. You’ve got a name, probably a date of birth and you might have an address. You have limited information and you sometimes don’t know how ill they are, and you don’t know their personal circumstances. The initial contact can be daunting but I’ve found the majority of people are very keen to communicate with us and appreciate the support we are offering.
There are significant changes being made and things are being tweaked as we go, so keeping on top of what’s going on can be a challenge but we do have a weekly meeting that gives us an update and gives everyone the opportunity to ask questions and have input.
There are quite a lot of challenging calls, specifically people who are very emotional. They may have contracted it themselves or they are concerned for a relative. They don’t know what to expect and they really are quite floored by it. That’s where we have to use all the communication skills to reassure people and support them.
That’s one of the things we are doing just now – while there is the capacity to do it, contact tracers are contacting previous cases who are already isolating about halfway through the period to see if they are okay and if there’s anything else to do. What shines through in the team is the compassion they all have, and their desire to support these people. It’s quite humbling to see.
There have been some challenging cases where people have been quite forthright, which is the subtle way of saying it! That can be difficult but it’s down to communication.
The basic techniques and ways of resolving conflict I learned in the police do come into it.
The team we are working with is absolutely fantastic. We have never met most of the people yet I feel I know them. The camaraderie and the way we have bonded, whether it’s over a difficult call or something we have never come across before – there is always somebody willing to pitch in. There is a common goal, and that is right from the top down through everyone. We are all focused on that one goal to play our part in eliminating Covid-19. It’s an honour to be part of it.
Never having met them I don’t know what a lot of people’s backgrounds are. There are quite a lot who have been redeployed within NHS Grampian. For others, I have no idea what their background is but you can get an idea of their nature and skills.
The locality amazed me because we have a contact tracer who lives in Yorkshire. With the technology, we have it actually doesn’t matter where you are or what your background is if you’ve got the necessary skills.
On the basis you’re learning all the time, there are obviously experiences or particular conversations that will stick with me. There’s also the bond among the contact tracers and we are all looking forward to the party whenever we can!