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They are New Zealand’s secret weapon against one of the world’s most disruptive viruses, and yet you won’t see them wearing PPE at the frontline or on our television screens swabbing patients. Instead, they’re usually sitting at a desk in front of a screen, with a phone and a long list of people to contact.

They are our contract tracers – our country’s cavalry on the hill. And with each outbreak comes the arduous task of pulling together the missing pieces of a nation-wide puzzle.

Pete Whalley, Public Health South Community MIQ Service Coordinator.
Pete Whalley, Public Health South Community MIQ Service Coordinator.
“Contact tracing is an essential part of Public Health in the event of any outbreak response so when this occurs, it’s all hands to the pump,” says Pete Whalley, Southern DHB Public Health South Community MIQ Service Coordinator. “The work can be swift and relentless – particularly in the first 48 hours.”

The initial call to someone who has been in contact with a COVID case can take from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the person. There is a set of questions all contacts are asked, including confirmation they were at an exposure event, if they have any symptoms, their living situation and if they have any specific needs.

A typical day starts around 8am when teams are briefed and allocated contacts. “The average contract tracer makes between 30-40 phone calls a day in tandem with information inputting, texting and emailing,” says Pete.

“We continue calling and doing check-ins until around 8:00pm, tidy up and make sure we are ready to do it all again tomorrow.”

Debby Newton, Public Health Contract Tracer.
Debby Newton, Public Health Contract Tracer.
Public Health South Smokefree Coordinator-turned-contact-tracer Debby Newton says while the role is challenging, it is rewarding to be part of the nationwide COVID-19 response.

“Some of the calls can be really hard, with people feeling stressed and anxious, particularly if there is a delay in their results,” says Debby. “Having a reassuring voice on the end of the phone each day really helps and it’s extremely rewarding to support them through their isolation time.

“Contact tracing is about teamwork and I’m so proud of how the Public Health Unit stepped up to respond to this outbreak. We knew our roles and got on with the mahi required.”

Having worked as a contract tracer in all the COVID-19 outbreaks in New Zealand, Debby’s advice to the public is simple. “If you have symptoms, please get a COVID test and then stay at home until you have a negative result. And scan, scan, scan – that makes our work so much easier.”


Check out these other Better Health South stories:
Board Update
Get Tested Immediately If You Have Symptoms
Our Hospitals
Other Essential Services
In The Community
Southern DHB Vaccine Update


Why is tracing happening when we have no cases or contacts?