Since July, I've worked as a Santa Clara County disaster volunteer conducting contact tracing. My friends and family have kindly praised this effort, but the personal benefits I've gained from doing this important public health work have far outweighed my commitment. In a time of great uncertainty, this work gives me direction and purpose and knowledge that there is a path forward as long as we all work together following the Public Health Department's lead.
When the pandemic hit, I was in the middle of my second year of retirement after a 30-year career in public education working as a teacher and librarian. In early March my husband and I returned from our first trip to South America, a journey we had saved for and dreamed about for a very long time. Two days before we arrived home, a friend emailed me and said she had bought extra bottles of Tylenol and toilet paper for us because stores were running out of these basic items. It was alarming to arrive home to such uncertainty, soon followed by news reports of sharply rising COVID-19 infections and deaths.
In April, our son, who lives in New York, showed us photos of portable morgues in nearby neighborhoods. It was hard for him to sleep at night because sirens blared at all hours. In May, our daughter moved in with us for a few weeks. She's a preschool speech therapist at a local public school, and I watched her try to figure out how to engage energetic preschoolers on this new video conferencing platform called Zoom. My husband started working from home, too. Even though he missed the comradery of his officemates, he adjusted pretty easily. I, on the other hand, was a wreck.
In June, I abandoned all pretense of reading or doing much else and became obsessed with the news. This was not healthy. Feeling powerless never is. But I was fortunate. My family wasn't sick. We had housing, food and a good Internet connection. Palo Alto was doing a good job of updating us on all the changes to our community, and, thanks to their efforts, I read about the county's need for contact tracers.
In late June, I began training in the county's excellent contact tracing program. In July, I made my first confidential phone call. The contact tracing interview is designed to help people who test positive for COVID-19 recover and isolate safely and to advise people who have been in close contact with the virus to quarantine and test. The most important questions we ask are: "How are you feeling?" and "How can we help?" Thanks to a language translation service, we can ask these questions in any language, and we strive to be culturally aware and respect every individual and family situation.
Some of the most challenging conversations I've had are around the importance of quarantine. We tell people who have been in close contact with the virus but have tested negative and are not experiencing symptoms to quarantine inside their homes for 10 days after their last contact with the virus and to watch for symptoms for an additional four days. This is a big sacrifice. People who are in quarantine are feeling fine, yet they must stay apart from others because they are potentially infectious. They cannot work. They cannot shop for groceries. They cannot go out into the world. They are home yet must fight the natural impulse to hold their ailing loved ones close for fear they will get infected.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 infections tend to roll through families. As member after member of a family tests positive, some people endure an extended quarantine situation that can last for weeks. Their individual actions help stop the spread of COVID-19 but at tremendous cost to their incomes and well-being. There has been so much reporting in the news about loud and angry groups of people who refuse to follow simple public health practices, like wearing a mask, but not nearly enough coverage of the quiet warriors who protect us all by enduring home quarantine.
We owe everyone who isolates and quarantines when faced with the virus a great debt of thanks. Behind their closed doors, they are a powerful weapon against the virus. We can show our respect and gratitude by continuing to follow public health guidelines such as mask wearing, avoiding crowds, testing when appropriate and getting a vaccine when eligible. For people who have questions about the vaccine, take the time to learn about its importance by exploring the county's vaccine website, which is updated frequently, at sccfreevax.org.
Our contact tracing training is ongoing and provides the support required to engage with strangers on the phone about some of life's most difficult problems. During one training session given just prior to the winter surge, we were asked two questions about the pandemic's emotional impact on our lives: What brings you desolation? What brings you consolation? When I think about how this year has changed me, my family and our community, I think about those questions and how they intertwine.
We grieve for the communities and workers who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, but hope that this glaring disparity will lead to better public health policies and economic investment. We lament the time lost in the physical presence of others but have learned new ways to connect remotely. Uncertainty can breed stress and despair but can also motivate someone like me to grab hold of a new opportunity for public service. I'm grateful for this volunteer work, and for the measure of peace and purpose it has brought during this pandemic year.
Rachel Kellerman is a retired educator and community volunteer.
What's this past year been like for you? How has the pandemic changed your life? The Palo Alto Weekly wants to hear local residents' stories of this pandemic year and how you and your perspective are different now. Send your thoughts, short or long, to [email protected] Or leave us a three-minute voicemail at 650-223-6510. Include your name and a way for us to contact you. We'll publish readers' reflections in March as part of a two-part series, "One Year In."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.