(Kezia Setyawan/Malheur Enterprise)

If you live in Baker County and have tested positive for COVID-19, or spent much time close to someone who contracted the virus, there’s a good chance you’ve talked to LeAnne Bourne.

Bourne didn’t expect to spend dozens of hours on the telephone in 2020, asking Baker County residents whether they’d been feeling ill, and dispensing advice about quarantining.

But then almost nobody anticipated a pandemic.

“I’ve had to adjust to this; it’s a new part of the day,” Bourne said.

She has worked as the office manager for the Baker County Health Department for the past three years.

But since summer, Bourne, while continuing her regular duties, has frequently set aside her clerical tasks to investigate the spread of COVID-19 in Baker County.

She’s one of the department’s nine contact tracers — employees who conduct telephone interviews with people who have been in close contact with a resident who tested positive for the virus.

Bourne is also one of four employees who are trained to do case investigations as well as contact tracing.

Case investigations are the first part of the process designed to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Bourne telephones people who have tested positive and, by querying them about their movements during the past two weeks or so, compiles a list of people who need to be interviewed — the contact tracing part of the process.

Bourne said she’s one of three case investigator/contact tracers who are on a rotating schedule to do their work from home during the weekend, as needed.

The workload, naturally, depends on the number of new cases.

But that’s not the only factor.

The number of people who are interviewed for contact tracing ranges from just a few to more than a dozen, Bourne said.

Some weekends, she said, one person can handle the phone interviews.

But the past several weeks have been busier, with the county reporting more than half of its 352 cases, as of Thursday, Dec. 10, since Nov. 1.

Although the surge in new cases has kept investigators busy, Bourne said she’s noticed a trend, at least among the infected residents she’s interviewed.

She doesn’t have specific numbers, but Bourne said the people she’s interviewed over the past several weeks for case investigations had fewer close contacts, on average, than what she recorded during the summer.

“I don’t think people are going out as much,” she said. “I think they’re taking it more seriously.”

Nancy Staten, director of the Baker County Health Department, has emphasized that the biggest contributors to the county’s rising number of infections are private parties and other social gatherings.

The guinea pig for training

Bourne laughs while explaining how she came to work as a case investigator and contact tracer.

“I was the guinea pig,” she said.

Bourne was the first employee to take an online training course. That was in May, before COVID-19 had begun to spread in Baker County.

The county had only one positive case — reported on May 6 — until the last week of June.

Bourne said the training was “very in-depth.”

After taking several online classes she participated in an eight-hour course that included making mock phone calls.

“It was a great training,” Bourne said.

But even though she felt well-prepared, she concedes that she was “scared” to make her first actual phone calls to a county resident who had tested positive or identified as a close contact.

“You never really know what you’re going to get as a response,” Bourne said.

Even after many dozens of phone conversations, she still can’t predict how the interview will turn out.

She’s laughed with people, and she’s listened to their sobs.

In one case investigation, the person who had tested positive had no symptoms and spent most of the interview telling jokes.

“That was a pretty fun interview,” Bourne said.

But then there was the married couple, both of whom tested positive.

One spouse had serious symptoms and was being treated in a hospital. The other spouse was at home, waiting and worrying.

Bourne said that although she didn’t do the contact tracing interview in that case, she empathizes with her colleague who did.

“That was a really tough situation,” she said.

Listening and learning

Bourne said that although she has a specific list of topics to cover during interviews, she quickly realized that doggedly following a script wasn’t always the most effective strategy.

The ability to adjust, based on the flow of the conversation, is crucial, she said.

Some people, for instance, will ask her questions that prompt queries from her that elicit information she might not have had otherwise.

Lending a sympathetic ear, and answering the inevitable questions from people who in some cases are frightened for themselves or their loved ones, are valuable skills, Bourne said.

“Some people just want to talk,” she said.

Although the topics that she delves into are unpleasant — illness, missing work and other economic travails — Bourne said a large majority of the people she has talked with are friendly and cooperative.

“They’re very nice and very agreeable, most of them,” she said. “They are very understanding, they know this is our job.”

Bourne said every person she’s interviewed for a case investigation — those are residents who have tested positive — has been helpful.

That includes the one person who hadn’t been notified of the positive test until Bourne telephoned.

(Typically residents already know they’ve been infected before the case investigator phones.)

That person was initially surprised, understandably, but was ultimately cooperative, Bourne said.

Not every contact tracing conversation has been so cordial, however.

Bourne said she’s talked with a small number of people who, after she told them they had been in close contact with someone who tested positive, were skeptical or outright dismissive of the potential danger.

“There are people who don’t believe the whole thing,” she said.

One person she interviewed, in response to her recommendation that the person quarantine, refused to do so, pointing out that “bills don’t quarantine.”

Bourne noted that county officials can’t require people to quarantine.

She said the county does send a letter to a person’s employer in cases when the person is asked to voluntarily quarantine.

Bourne said she’s interviewed a few people who had struggled financially due to quarantining, including one person who had just finished quarantining and then started again after being identified as a close contact for a second time.

But even in those cases, she said, most people willingly heed the county’s recommendation.

Although for privacy reasons Bourne and other contact tracers, when doing interviews with close contacts, don’t name the person who tested positive, she said the vast majority of people she’s talked to already knew what had happened.

Most, she said, have talked to the person who tested positive before Bourne’s phone call.

Bourne said about half of the people she calls for contact tracing have had symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

Contact tracing school classes

The resumption of in-person classes for Baker School District students in grades K-6 on Oct. 14 has had an effect on contact tracers, Bourne said.

As of Thursday, eight students have tested positive. According to the school district and the health department, none of those students was infected while at school, and there’s no evidence that the infection has spread inside any school.

The school district protocol has all students who share a classroom with an infected student quarantine for two weeks.

Bourne said that although the school district notifies each of those students’ families, the health department also does contact tracing interviews with each family. That means each positive case in a student necessitates a larger number of contact tracing interviews than usual.

Bourne said parents of students who quarantine, but who haven’t themselves tested positive, often have questions. For instance, some parents wonder whether a sibling of a student who quarantines should do the same.

Bourne said siblings are considered “contacts of a contact,” and are not asked to quarantine. 

She said she and other contact tracers do ask parents to watch for potential symptoms, throughout the family, during the quarantine period.

This story is published with permission as part of a statewide collaboration of news organizations to share stories. Salem Reporter is part of the collaboration. 

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