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Social worker puts her skills to work in pandemic as contact tracer

  • Rachel Wassel, works as a contact tracer from her home office in Royalton, Vt., with her dogs Hazel, left, and Juneau, not pictured, keeping her company, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2020. During an initial interview with a person who has tested positive for the virus, Wassel establishes a list of people they have been in contact with. She then calls each person on the list to advise them quarantining and getting a test seven days after the recorded contact. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to valley news — James M. Patterson

  • Rachel Wassel, of Royalton, is a contact tracer for the Vermont Department of Health. She was photographed in her home office, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to valley news —James M. Patterson

  • Rachel Wassel walks with her husband Eric Lacaillade around their Royalton, Vt., home after a work day Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Wassel is a contact tracer for the Vermont Department of Health. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rachel Wassel, of Royalton, has split her time working for the Vermont Department of Health between her normal job as a social worker for families who have children with special needs and contact tracing. Wassel sits in her Royalton, Vt., home office where she conducts phone interviews of people who have tested positive for the virus and others who have been in contact with them, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/7/2020 8:35:51 PM
Modified: 9/8/2020 7:26:46 PM

ROYALTON — After a Vermonter or visitor to the state gets a call from a physician or other health care provider alerting them to a positive COVID-19 test result, Rachel Wassel or one of her 65 fellow trained contact tracers is likely to be calling next.

Since early April, Wassel, a 32-year-old social worker who lives in Royalton, has been helping people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts to isolate from others until their risk of transmitting the disease has decreased.

As the pandemic hit the region in March, Wassel said that like many people following the news she was feeling “pretty anxious.”

But, “being actively involved in Vermont’s response has given me something to do,” she said in a phone interview in late August. “It means a lot to be contributing to my community and to be helping people work through (their) understanding of this.”

Contact tracing, along with testing, is one of the keys to preventing the spread of COVID-19. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, in an April 29 press conference, compared the public health response to the pandemic to firefighters’ response to a forest fire.

“Testing will allow us to spot those embers early and contact tracing allows us to surround it in order to contain it,” he said at the time.

Different states have taken different approaches, but Vermont relies on Health Department employees to do the interviews, determine who else might be at risk of transmission and inform them of how to isolate to avoid further transmission. Wassel said staff members from the state’s epidemiology team, who in non-pandemic times conduct contact tracing for other infectious diseases, taught her how to do it.

In New Hampshire, the Department of Health and Human Services is leading the effort with assistance from the National Guard. As of last month, the Granite State had 110 people focused on this work, with the ability to increase that number as schools and colleges reopen this fall, Beth Daly, the chief of the state’s Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, told NHPR.

In non-pandemic times, Wassel helps families in Washington, Orange and northern Windsor counties who have children with special health needs navigate the medical system and other challenges; helping them to get the care they need and insurance to cover the cost. Her knowledge of social supports has come in handy in her COVID-19 work.

While she said she and other contact tracers, including four other social workers, “can’t solve every problem, for sure,” they can help people figure out which nearby supermarkets deliver, which community members might be available to pick up and drop off items such as cleaning supplies, or arrange for transportation to a more isolated location.

“If I don’t know where to go, I call the town clerk,” Wassel said.

At home in Royalton, Wassel starts her day around 7:45 a.m. and usually has her list of people to call by 9 a.m. Those who have tested positive for COVID-19 are usually expecting to hear from her, Wassel said. Her first step is to explain why she’s calling and to make sure that the person is in a good place to talk. She asks them if they have questions, lets them know which symptoms to look out for and outlines the steps they should take to isolate themselves.

For people who have COVID-19 symptoms, she asks them to think back to 48 hours before those symptoms began and for those who tested positive without symptoms, she asks them to think back to 48 hours before the test in developing their list of contacts. Close contacts are people who may live in the same home, are intimate partners, have ridden in a car together, sat next to each other in church or had dinner together during an infectious period.

She tries to make sure that she and the person with COVID-19 have the same understanding of what a close contact is, establish when that close interaction may have occurred and to get a phone number for that individual as well.

When most people were staying home with their families in accordance with the governor’s stay at home order, Wassel said her job was easier. But as things have gradually reopened, working with people to determine their close contacts has gotten more difficult.

She navigates questions such as “Does the backyard barbeque count?” Or if people have gone to the lake, she has to ask follow up questions such as how close they were to other people and for how long.

“Those kinds of questions get a little murkier,” she said.

Once the call with the person with COVID-19 wraps up, she begins to work down the list of contacts. Contact tracers don’t confirm or deny who the person with COVID-19 is to the contacts they call.

She begins by saying, “We’re reaching out to you because you’ve been identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.”

She asks them to quarantine for 14 days, although if they have no symptoms they can get tested seven days following the contact and if the test comes back negative they can end the quarantine early. She tells them what symptoms to look out for, such as headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, cough, runny nose and fever. They can also sign up for a symptom monitoring app called Sara Alert.

In general, Wassel said contacts are open to having these conversations. Sometimes, though, they can be emotional.

Issues such as a concern for elderly relatives if they have spent time with people at greater risk of developing serious symptoms due to COVID-19 can come into play. So do worries about having to miss work and the resulting paychecks.

Wassel said her training as a social worker comes into play when people become tearful or anxious.

“Those are things that I’m comfortable with being alongside,” she said.

While she tries to help people problem solve, she also works to maintain boundaries. She doesn’t want to become their therapist because that’s not her role. But she does try to reassure people, saying if they “follow these guidelines (they) should be pretty OK.”

“For the most part, I think people are complying,” she said.

“It is hard (and) it is scary,” she said she tells people. “Also, you’re OK. Take a deep breath. We can get through this together.”

Despite her training, Wassel said there are still some calls that touch a nerve. She worries about her own relatives during the pandemic; their risk of disease and their livelihoods. Her mom is a social worker for hospice care in New York City who has “seen a lot,” including having several co-workers who have gotten sick. Wassel also had some elderly relatives who contracted COVID-19. They recovered, though it was “touch and go” for a while.

Closer to home, her husband Eric Lacaillade, a draftsman for a monument design company in Barre, was on furlough for seven weeks this spring. He has since been able to return. They had a wedding planned for October, but canceled it and instead were married in their backyard in May. They share their home with two dogs, Juneau, an 8-year-old rottweiler, and Hazel, a 7-year-old labradoodle.

She and her co-workers, who are all working from home, have devised various self-care strategies to get through and process the tougher calls. They try to end their days at 4:30. If they work late, they start later the next day. She takes walks and breaks up the day with short exercises like squats, which she and her co-workers challenge each other to complete throughout the day. They also share pictures of bunnies or dogs.

One of the benefits of doing the work at home is that she can “take five minutes” to “stand in the backyard or pet my dogs.”

These are strategies she shares with the people she talks to in her contact tracing work. There “are things you can do to feel OK,” she said. Activities such as getting outside and spending time with pets are “really important in getting better from this virus.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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