Across Michigan, coronavirus contact tracers face lies, anger and silence

Tracing the spread of COVID-19 in Ottawa County combines technology, detective work and diplomacy. The hard work can help curb the virus’ spread, according to Derel Glashower, senior epidemiologist at the Ottawa County health department. (Bridge photo by Autumn Johnson-Pierce.)

July 15: As Michigan COVID cases soar, infected residents won’t cooperate with tracers

From the moment COVID-19 began its surge through Michigan in March, a small army of people — contact tracers — has tried to keep it contained.

In return, they have found themselves lied to, told off, ignored, or hung up on.

 

“It can be great, and it can be horrible,” said Sue Leeson, who oversees the communicable diseases program in Isabella County.  

Sometimes, these virus detectives say, they can get a sense for how a call will unfold from the tone of voice at the other end of the line.

“You can tell those who are going to cooperate and those who are not,” Leeson said. “Sometimes, they flat out lie and say they’ve haven’t been out of the house, but you see it right there on their social media.” 

For county health workers who have been through a slew of infectious diseases before the coronavirus, this frontline investigative work has never felt so political. In some parts of the country, online threats have prompted contact tracers to install security cameras, while others have had to endure conspiracy theories, including worries about quarantine camps or that tracers were out to harm children.  

“People are angry,” said Julie Beeching, director of nursing at the Van Buren/Cass County District Health Department. “They say ‘I can't deal with this anymore,’” referencing the months of lockdown during the pandemic. “It’s that they can't see anymore the light at the end of the tunnel.” 

“You can’t make people give up information. You can’t make people not lie to you.” — Sue Leeson, communicable disease specialist, Isabella County.

Dr. Larry Wile, medical director at the same department, recalled one woman who insisted she had no contact with anyone outside her home. The department’s tracers later discovered the woman worked at a nursing home — among residents most vulnerable to the virus. 

Members of an area church refused to share information with the department after tracers connected a COVID-19 outbreak to a church retreat, Wile said. He declined to name the church and noted there have been outbreaks traced to several church gatherings.

“They are very challenging conversations,” said Robin Walicki, clinical supervisor of the Family Health division of the District Health Department 10, which covers 10 counties in northern Michigan.

To be sure, contact tracers in five county health departments interviewed by Bridge said that most people they speak with want to help. They listen, ask questions, offer the names of people they have been in close contact with, and promise to take steps to protect loved ones and others.

But others?

“You can’t make people give up information,” Leeson said. “You can’t make people not lie to you.” 

The job of Michigan’s contact tracers may be about to get more difficult as the state’s economy reopens in fits and starts and residents’ resolve to fight the virus begins to flag — as evidenced by packed bars, family gatherings, graduation parties, beach bashes, and unofficial proms, including one dubbed a Pandemic Prom.

It’s an “exponential amount of infections that now we're trying to contact trace,” Beeching said. 

Sleuthing a virus  

Contact tracers in Michigan are often public nurses and epidemiologists — the quiet, steadfast core of public health. 

Over their careers, they’ve tracked the spread of everything from measles to pertussis and whooping cough, identifying those who come in contact with people who test positive and encouraging them to quarantine.   

For the most part, tracers told Bridge, the people they call are receptive and cooperative, even though “this is not a call that anybody wants to get,” said Janet Olszewski, former director of the Michigan Department of Community Health, now part of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. MDHHS has, in fact, launched an ad campaign to assist tracers, urging Michiganders to respond to their calls.

In best case scenarios, tracers help communities get ahead of COVID-19, stopping each burst of infection before it cascades into another burst — much like exploding clusters of fireworks in a holiday finale.

But COVID-19 can spread quickly, jumping from a single person carrying the virus, often without knowing it, to people they talk with at a bar, say, or a church event. Those people, in turn, can spread the virus to others within days before they even show symptoms. 

Contact tracers try to reach each person who has a positive test result from a COVID-19 test. Sometimes, their calls are answered. Sometimes not. 

Volunteers recruited to help county health departments with contact tracing reach the person who test positive within 24 hours about 60 percent of the time, according to Lynn Sutfin, the MDHHS spokeswoman. Other times, tracers turn to certified letters or calls to suspected carriers’ relatives to track down working numbers or pass along messages.

In Ottawa County, they’ve turned to a texting system, too.

“There are a number of people who haven’t responded to our calls, but as soon as we send a text, they’ll respond,” said Derel Glashower, senior epidemiologist at the Ottawa County Department of Public Health.

The tracer explains the infection and advises those who have tested positive to self-isolate, limiting interactions even with other household members. The tracers also ask them about who they’ve been around — housemates, friends, coworkers, even strangers.

If they recently traveled by plane, tracers need airlines and flight numbers, said Lukas Ayers, an epidemiologist at the Wayne County Department of Health, Human & Veterans Services, “and really, it would be awesome if we have that seat number as well, so that the CDC (U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention) team can then take that investigation from there.”

Those who haven’t tested positive, but have been exposed to someone with a positive infection, are asked to self-quarantine, meaning they also should stay at home for 14 days.

Whether a person tests positive or has been exposed to someone with the virus, they can expect a daily follow-up phone call or text message to monitor any symptoms.

The daily texts in Ottawa County not only save staff hours, but automated a dizzying array of calls that lead to other calls, said Glashower, who said that without the system “we’d have spreadsheets within spreadsheets within spreadsheets.” 

Olszewski, the former state health head, is among 420 volunteer tracers in the state supplementing paid public health staff in contact tracing efforts. She said she works the phones about three hours a day. 

Most people want reassurance or answers. But Olszewski said others tell her: “We’re doing all of that. Now don’t call again.”

Helping or snitching? 

Young adults especially may be reluctant to give up names of friends, especially if an outbreak becomes well known in a community or people feel they are being publicly shamed when they were just trying to have fun, said Ayers at Wayne County, where at least 21 COVID-19 cases have been traced to the Playhouse Club, an adult entertainment club in Romulus.

Generally, he said, “younger individuals are a little more less likely to provide names and contact information for close contacts because they may feel that they're snitching or ratting on their friends,” he said. 

Contact tracers, he said, “aren’t going to admonish you for doing that.” In fact, the conversations are confidential, and people who talk with contact tracers will not have their names revealed to others the tracers call.

Jorge Garcia makes initial calls to Ottawa County residents who are infected or exposed to COVID-19, but the county also uses a texting system for follow-up check-ins. (Bridge photo by Autumn Johnson-Pierce.)

This past week, Beeching and others in southwest Michigan said they were bracing for a potential COVID-19 spike among the throngs of young people seen partying at Diamond Lake, where revelers packed tightly into the water on a sunny July Fourth weekend. Returns are already filtering in from a holiday bash on Torch Lake, with several attendees testing positive.  

Outbreaks from large gatherings can be a “nightmare” to trace, said Wile, the Van Buren/Cass medical director.

Many of the Diamond Lake revelers were out-of-towners, including people coming to Cass County from across the Indiana state line, adding complications since the states’ contact-tracing systems are not connected. And many of those in the crowd likely do not know each other’s names, anyway, he noted.

The state’s contact tracers are responsible for tracking an “exponential amount of infections,” according to Julie Beeching, director of nursing in the Van Buren/Cass County District Health Department. (Bridge photo by Autumn Johnson-Pierce.)

Some Michigan health workers have privately begun to question the continued usefulness of efforts to trace the coronavirus, especially as outbreaks are tied to larger and larger gatherings. The time required detracts from the other life-saving duties of already stretched thin public health offices — dispensing vaccines, investigating outbreaks of sexually-transmitted disease, conducting back-to-school vision and hearing screenings, or tracking mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile Virus or Eastern Equine Encephalitis.

“We've been talking about it in public health with our medical directors,” Wile said. “When you get an abundance like this (at Diamond Lake), what good is it doing?”

Those who attended the Diamond Lake event likely aren’t distancing elsewhere, either, he said. Does it make sense to track partiers to the stores and restaurants they may have visited? 

Or could health workers’ time be better spent promoting a single public health message: If you were there, consider yourself potentially infected.

Wiles said his office’s efforts sometimes feel “like you are trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose.” 

Answering questions, feeding cats 

The job can take an emotional toll as well. Contact tracers often find themselves in conversation with people who are anxious or confused, or still in grief from a loved one who just died.

Dr. Larry Wile, medical director at the Van Buren/Cass County District Health Department, said mass gatherings of people uninterested in taking safety precautions can make contact tracers feel helpless to help at times. (Bridge photo by Autumn Johnson-Pierce.)

Tracers offer help to people in self-quarantine — recommending emotional support, delivery services, social services or medical care.

Olszewski said one woman, quarantined at home, just “wanted to know how she was going to get her cat fed.” Olszewski was able to suggest a food pantry and local delivery options.

Some people on the other end of the phone line are desperate for medical advice, or basic information about their symptoms. 

“Loss of taste and smell is (a) classic symptom for this disease, and so people frequently ask ‘When will my smell return?’ I just don’t have an answer for them,” said Ayers of Wayne County.

But public health workers are a determined bunch. 

In Cass, the three nurses who work the phones in a plain brick building traced more than two dozen cases of COVID-19 to a family birthday bash. Other cases were traced to area meat-packing plants.

In mid-Michigan, contact tracing revealed an outbreak among out-of-town cleaning crews brought in after the Edenville Dam gave way during a downpour. In Ingham County, COVID-19 cases traced to a bar near the Michigan State University campus topped 170 people this week.

For all their frustration, tracers say they continue to believe their outreach stops even large outbreaks from getting worse.

Still, as summer unfolds and the parties get looser, tracers’ work has been particularly challenging. 

“You hear (from guests) there was hugging and kissing and no one was wearing masks, and I’m shaking my head,” said Walicki of northern Michigan. 

“It can get really disheartening, but you know, I was talking to my husband last night and I said ‘What I’m doing is not pointless,’” she said. 

“If we can save one life because we’ve prevented the spread from one house to another house and save somebody’s grandmother, it’s worth it."

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Comments

10x25mm
Sun, 07/12/2020 - 2:56pm

It would appear that our Governor's charm offensive is failing.

Yawn
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 12:57pm

No, you are just projecting.

Shon
Sun, 07/12/2020 - 6:40pm

Contact tracing will only ever be as effective as the people being asked questions are honest. And honesty will never be present when people are not asked all pertinent questions. If Michigan's policies are like New York City, where de Blasio said people can't be asked if they attended "protests," then why even bother with contact tracing at all.

WWJD?
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 1:11pm

You mean protests or Trump rallies in Arizona, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Mississippi, etc.?

"Members of an area church refused to share information with the department after tracers connected a COVID-19 outbreak to a church retreat, Wile said. He declined to name the church and noted there have been outbreaks traced to several church gatherings."

Wouldn't it make more sense to ALSO name the church publicly so that people who may have attended the retreat will have notice as to their exposure than to rely merely on public tracing, honesty, etc.? They may actually care about who they may infect, unless they were being naughty with their neighbor, like a lot are want to be.

Jason
Sun, 07/12/2020 - 9:45pm

“this frontline investigative work has never felt so political”

It turned political when Whitmer tried to hire a leftist group to contact trace people.

LOL
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 3:32pm

You sound a bit biased yourself.

EB
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 7:35am

The Covid-19 Creed: My freedom to party, drink at crowded bars, congregate with others, cough or sneeze on whomever I wish, and infect as many as I desire to infect with my deadly virus, shall not be infringed.

Veemann
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 4:26pm

AMEN!

Herd thinning
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 8:57am

"Covid Parties" says it all.

M from G
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 9:16am

This is really showing the character of our State. I commend these contact tracers for the thankless job they are doing.

Protests
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 9:33am

Funny......they stuck to the talking points and didn't mention the thousands of people who attended the black lives matter protests and obviously spread the virus around. A week before those protests, being in groups that large was the absolute worst thing possible, but when those protests started, then magically it became OK to be in groups of thousands of people NOT practicing social distancing.

All of those people who went to Harpers and spread the virus had to have gotten it from somewhere before they got there, but it doesn't fit the governor's narrative to talk about that where they were before Harpers.

No racist herring
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 12:59pm

The vast majority of people at those protests wore masks, but not the people with assault weapons at the capitol or the people partying in the lakes and bars.

Todd
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 7:02pm

That’s a flat out lie.

Anonymous
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 10:10am

What's a lie? Compare the photos.

Sarah G
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 9:06pm

I agree and what about those Trump rallies where almost no one wore a mask standing side by side indoors. They were discouraged from wearing a mask and asked to sign liability waivers!

Marlene Augst
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 8:48pm

And none of those with the assault weapons got sick. Huge difference between positive testing, being sick, and being sick enough to die. The die part is a select group; read the science.

GOP narratives
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 10:14am

The church services, state capitol protest, Harper bar, Trump rally seemed like big Covid Parties with majorities not wearing masks. How do you know who got sick?

SS
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 9:36am

Doesn’t EVERYONE realize that the more people are exposed the faster the virus will lesson! Health Department : tell people theTruth that 99% of positive cases means more people will be immune to the virus! We are always exposed to germs. Why dont you make people with sts diseases public information? Those are more dangerous than viruses. This whole thing is politically driven. If you are ok with this kind of living, move to China. All this will change after the election no matter who wins.Michigan was great until Governor Whitmer took charge of our lives and livelihoods. Masks don’t make a difference unless you are in a nursing home or hospital.Leave everybody alone. Our hospitals aren’t full of COVID patients.If all the scared people stay home all will be ok, including the Governor. Keep her on Mackinac Island forever.

GOP "narrative"
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 1:02pm

Wrong and it's "lessen". See, Sweden for the failures of herd immunity and stop spreading misinformation.

George Hagenauer
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 5:06pm

The scary thing is currently there are questions about what constitutes immunity and how long it lasts . Herd Immunity or even a full year immunity after exposure has not been actually proven. It is a hypothesis which in terms of data may not be true. Immunity sadly from COVID19 may be a very limited thing. A major problem is that the virus and its effects have not been totally defined so we need to be careful sicne we are working with limited knowledge that is solid at this time.

Amen
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 10:17am

Yes and vaccines may be useless because the virus may have already mutated. We have to develop vaccines and adapt to new ways of life. No one should expect "back to normal" without huge deadly consequences.

hallinen
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 5:24pm

SS, the approach you are suggesting will result in the death of 1%-3% of our population. The infection fatality rate is about 0.7%, but if we crash the health care system, there will not be enough ICU beds and our death rate will increase. We can also expect about 5% of the population will suffer months to years to a lifetime of complications include scarred lungs, congestive heart failure, strokes and cognitive dysfunction. Those over 50 will have a considerable disease burden that will decrease their productivity. Postponing your COVID-19 infection until 2021 means you will have a much better chance of a good outcome as compared to getting it this year. We are always exposed to germs, but we have not seen this one before. This germ is a multisystem disease, it isn't just pneumonia, it damages blood vessels. This is why it damages many different organs in complicated ways. China doesn't want us, our infection rates are too high. Our passports are useless. Most of the world doesn't want us. You are completely wrong about masks. Masks decrease the amount of virus that gets airborne and the amount of virus that contaminates surfaces. The day before and after you get sick with COVID is the day you are spreading the most virus. The day before you get sick, you don't know you are sick, and if you are not wearing a mask, and are in an enclosed public space, you are spreading disease. Masks are not 100% effective at containing the virus, but do approach 70% efficacy. If you are staying 6 feet away from other people, and they are also wearing a mask, we can control this pandemic. Stop spreading false information.

Mary Sue
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 9:11pm

hallinen,
What a wonderful explanation! Thank you!

Huh?
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 9:15pm

SS,
"Michigan was great until Governor Whitmer took charge of our lives and livelihoods."

So the governor should have done nothing when we got hit with the virus? How would our lives have been better? Sometimes I wonder if posters are so blinded by their rage that they don't think through their train of thoughts. Where is the logic in your thinking?

Nick Salowich
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 9:54am

The dedication of those committed to saving lives, even the ones who don't care about their own, is amazing to me. Why people rationalize the needless death of 130,000 Americans and resist participating in programs to prevent the spread of this disease is a mystery. The country with the best education and research is also the country with the most ignorance and self-absorption disguised as FREEDOM.

Sandra
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 1:30pm

Interesting article. I would like to relay my experience with the Isabella Health Dept.
I received notice from the Soaring Eagle that 2 employees in the Legends Restaurant had tested positive for Covid-19 and that they were working with the local health dept. regarding this matter. The empIoyees had last worked 6-29 and 6-30. Since I had dined there on the 30th, I was concerned. I called the Isabella Health Dept and gave the worker the information to which the response was "I don't follow their website" I told her it had been on the local news as well as the newspaper and asked whether they had contact tracers. She agreed to check and when she came back asked if I had worn a mask. I told her yes but certainly you can't when you are eating. Her response was unless I was really close to the person, like shoulder to shoulder, for a considerable length of time, I shouldn't worry. I could not find out of this was a waiter, cook or whoever so I really don't know if I was close or not. My point is----hard for me to believe this article! Maybe the people interviewed for this article think this is how their dept. is working, but my experience doen't show it.

Anonymous
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 3:39pm

Is that State Representative Roger Hauck's district?

Ouchez
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 7:56pm

I and Wife were also at S.E. those dates but did not eat at Legends, thankfully. While S.E. does a great job following the rules, like most bizzness do not, we have decided to just stay away from all restaurants for the duration, and that means no more trips to S.E.,,and we are Diamond members. Covid is slowly destroying everything,,,thanks CCP! :(

Thank Trump
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 10:19am

How come most other countries have this under control? Do they have better governors or national leaders?

Lame America
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 9:18pm

Both! Although I think Whitmer is doing a great job, we need all governors and the president on the same page. That's how the other countries kicked Covid butt. Here it's just the opposite, a keystone cop approach.

Marlene Augst
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 8:56pm

According to the SCIENCE they have so far you have to be in close proximity, closer than 6 Ft, for 15 minutes or more. Based on the number of tests given already (negative and positive) there is a 7% positive rate, less than 2% sickness rate and even less in deaths. The group who get sick are those with 2 or more chronic illnesses, old or those with type A blood. Obesity is playing a HUGE role in this.

SCIENCE
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 10:24am

15 minutes, exactly? What age is the magic age when the virus hurts you? Sounds like you are describing a classroom where students and teachers spend hours together, with 20-30% of teachers who are older, perhaps have underlying conditions, not to mention students with underlying conditions, and how students can get very sick, if not die, spread the virus to parents, extended family, etc.

Sandra
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 10:22pm

I had not heard or read about this SCIENCE! What I had read is that infected "droplets" could travel up to 10 feet and there was a possibility that they could travel through the air conditioning systems. So now there is SCIENCE if I'm not within 6 feet for 15 minutes, I don't have to worry?? Really??

Anonymous
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 1:55pm

Freedom is more important than your health. That's why people fight wars. In war, they kill those who would take away freedom. I am happy to die free. I do not require your approval. I do not hear your voice. I will not stand in the company of fools.

LOL
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 10:28am

Do you drive on the wrong side of expressways, freedom lover?

hallinen
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 5:13pm

Thank you contact tracers! You are doing critical work. It is worth it. Now it is our turn to listen to our public health officials. Wearing a mask in enclosed public spaces demonstrates respect for fellow humans. According to some fancy math, https://www.pnas.org/content/117/26/14857, we can expect a daily drop in cases if we wear masks. I hope Whitmer closes the bars statewide and indoor dining. I love to eat out, I'm tired of my cooking, but we are failing, our numbers are going up and case positivity has increased. I hope the population going to parties is camping out in the backyard, they have no business being indoors with vulnerable family.

Mitchell S
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 9:26pm

I love my cooking, but I'm getting fat.

George Hagenauer
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 5:37pm

An interesting question I haven't seen answered anywhere is where did the dissension over wearing masks come from? And for that matter where did the original quotes about African Americans being immune come from? Those quotes added to the racial divide on who was infected by the virus.
The sense is of course is that it is the political divide in this country. But we also know that a lot of that political divide was fueled by skilled Russian and other groups who used detailed knowledge about specific American target groups to create major problems during the last election.
Deterring people from being traced , wearing masks etc. in the name of freedom basically further damages the American economy, may create long term health problems for the infected and can be a major problem in military bases or on nay ships where living and working quarters are often cramped.
So the easiest way for another nation to weaken America at this time is to foster social media campaigns at this time against wearing masks, social distancing or any other preventive measures for battling the virus. An enemy country doesn't have to go to war or create a virus , or even have anyone in America, they just need a small crew of knowledgeable creators to develop material that would be dumped into social media and Americans will spread it and they in turn spread the virus themselves through inaccurate posts on the web.. Figuring out where misinformation came from might be a key step.

Anonymous
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 10:32am

The misinformation/disinformation resonates in echo chambers that finds its way into Trump tweets. Is it any wonder why people question whether Trump is a Russian asset?

Todd
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 6:59pm

Not a single mention of tracers being asked NOT to ask positive cases if they’ve been to a protest. You people call yourself journalists? The bias here is blatant but what else is new? How about also reporting the obvious issue of tracers who can’t possibly trace asymptomatic cases or people who don’t even know they have the virus?? Contact tracing is as useless as the media outlets reporting this trash.

Testy
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 10:37am

You seem clueless. Tracers don't ask in general where you have been. They ask if you were at specific places where others tested positive. Which protest resulted in positive tests? Why do you assume people at protests are not being called?

Holly resident
Mon, 07/13/2020 - 7:22pm

"they have found themselves lied to, told off, ignored, or hung up on."
You'll get more of the same, if you try contacting me...

Anonymous
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 10:25am

Imagine if they are calling about STD. It's definite a tough thankless job and these people are volunteers?

Yorgan
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 3:44am

So then youre saying you have it, lol? My kids live in Holly, so could you just kindly stay in your house not answering your phone?

Michigan Man
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 11:01am

Never give up freedom for safety.

Logic is an enemy, truth a menace.

Anonymous
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 9:28pm

Do you drive on the wrong side of the road?

Anonymous
Fri, 07/24/2020 - 11:40pm

Depends on the day

PR
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 3:09pm

Here's a question for y'all. If c19 can be spread by the droplets from your nose and mouth, up to 10ft away from a person, and infect someone else, why would a person who is getting tested have to have a Swab shoved up their nose, to the base of their skull where the brain fibers are? I won't have the testing done, and if I did, the inside of my cheek is good enough for a c19 test, and as far as any Swab is going in my body.
Yes I know I have run on sentences with my version of Correct Grammar. I type the way I talk, if it bothers you Grammar Police, don't read my comment.

Harry
Thu, 07/30/2020 - 3:32pm

We are doomed once schools open. Seriously, our district is saying no mask at all for grade six and under. Oh, and they can't social distance either. Little kids touch every thing. Community spread will be something you will definitely see. I worry about these children too. Polio had post Polio, Chicken pox, shingles. We no nothing about long term out comes by of this horrid virus. Kids may not react strongly now, but what about later?? The risk is real. Yet, you can pack the kids in like sardines during a pandemic and that's okay? (I bet you will see challenges to the Heath Department on their vaccine waivers soon) It's a pandemic and no one's truly looking out for teachers or students. No schools should be back full time if the state still has infections. Sad.

Barb
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 5:25pm

Why is a contact tracer checking out a persons face book page. This is why there is mistrust. Questions are very intrucive. my health is between my physician and me. I don't want a government agency to have any information on me. Sorry..