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As coronavirus lingers in D-FW, leaders want more contact tracers to identify hotspots

Coupled with testing, contact tracing could help locate a potential hotspot in the community that is popping up for COVID-19 positive cases.

After 28 years working in the public health care industry, Victoria “Vikki" Yeatts is volunteering as a contact tracer for Dallas County. 

Contact tracers in the county call people to let them know that they were in physical proximity with a person who has tested positive with COVID-19.

It's work that state and local officials say is necessary to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and identify potential hotspots. 

"We want to make sure we have the best testing and contact tracing local regime that we can in the absence of a federal one," said Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson during a news conference Wednesday. 

Gov. Greg Abbott announced plans in April to hire 4,000 contact tracers to track the disease in Texas. So far, 2,000 have been hired.

Yeatts says the hardest part isn’t contacting people but hearing from a family that is dealing with a positive case, or more than one case, in the household.

“They’re very stressed about it, because they can’t visit them in the hospital so they’re worried about them, worried about what is going to happen,” Yeatts said. “We can’t always give them the best answers, so we’re there to provide some empathy and let them talk. I think that’s the hardest.”

RELATED: Where is Texas in its goal to hire 4,000 contact tracers to track the spread of COVID-19?

A contact tracer also learns where a person who tested positive went throughout the community — a task that was much easier during the stay-at-home orders in April.

The contact tracers at Dallas County also help people get any needed information for resources, such as bill assistance, food banks and senior services.

"Half the time I felt like a public health slash social worker," Yeatts said. "You get so used to identifying needs in the community that you can help people with... because of [COVID-19] people’s resources are going to run out the longer this goes on."

Those are cases that she says stay in the back of her mind, especially when she hears that one partner or spouse has COVID-19 and the other is home alone.

"Sometimes they don't have that contact with anybody so talking with me provides some consultation, some reassurance," Yeatts said. "It helps them get things off their chest."

As a public health nurse for decades, now she is using those people-skills to talk to people on the phone for many hours a day.

"I know I've been blessed, I've been lucky and I feel I want to give back and help those who have less than I have," Yeatts said. "I enjoy it."

She receives a list every week of people who tested positive for COVID-19 from the Dallas County health department and she learns who each person has been in physical contact with -- from 14 days before their symptoms began and 14 days after.

Sometimes if someone on her list doesn't answer the phone during the day, she tries again in the evenings or on weekends when people may be less busy.

She answers questions about COVID-19 and gives guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

One of her bigger concerns is not knowing how many asymptomatic carriers there are. 

"I tell people this is a virus you need to take seriously," Yeatts said. "Don't live your life in fear, but take it seriously."

How to become a contact tracer

Dallas County has about 180 people who are doing contact tracing, 150 of whom are volunteers made up of medical school students, retired nurses and doctors. If you'd like to become a volunteer contact tracer, you must have a health care background. Go here to become a volunteer.

In Tarrant County, the health department has 39 employees who are contact tracing, health officials said. There are 60 UNT Health Science Center student volunteers who are helping with contact tracing, according to Media Relations Director Alexander Branch.

Johns Hopkins offering free course to be COVID-19 contact tracer

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