Year of pandemic has been a baptism by fire for COVID-19 contact tracer

a woman hugs a dog
North Dakota Department of Health contact tracer Sarah Swartz with her dog Mouse on Tuesday in Fargo, N.D. Swartz called the dog she adopted this year "my light in these dark times."
Courtesy of Sarah Swartz

Sarah Swartz was hired as a contact tracer for the state of North Dakota before she even completed her masters degree in public health.

Now, she's a case manager, supervising other contact tracers.

"COVID has been my life for the last nine months," she said.

North Dakota didn't have many cases early in the pandemic, but by July and August, the state had become a growing hot spot.

"So we were really struggling, we may have had 100 cases a day, but then we'd have 1,000 contacts to deal with," said Swartz.

She was overwhelmed. The entire system was overwhelmed.

"We were all working ridiculous hours, working seven days a week,” she recalled.

Eventually, North Dakota cut back and focused on contacting only the close contacts of people who had tested positive, instead of all contacts. Recently the state has expanded contact tracing again as case numbers began to decline.

The days were intense, but it wasn't just the workload that made it so exhausting.

“There was one day where I messaged everybody and just said, 'Hey, you know what, I am extremely overwhelmed and tired of seeing people die,’" said Swartz. “And a lot of other individuals were feeling that way. So it was nice to know I wasn't alone, but also hard to know that they're experiencing the same thing I am, because I don't want anyone to experience that.”

Swartz says she’s been changed by 2020. The pandemic has taught her to put aside emotion in order to do her job.

"It's hard to come compartmentalize because I am a very empathetic person,” she said. “And so when you talk to a case, and 10 days later they pass away, they maybe had a sore throat, a cough and then 10 days later they're gone. It’s hard.”

She said she’s still frustrated by people who aren't taking the pandemic seriously, although she said that fewer people are rejecting contact tracers' calls these days.

But she's been called ignorant, a terrorist, a sheep and plenty of other unrepeatable names.

She deleted her Twitter account, but persists in calling out misinformation on Facebook when she sees it.

And she continues to be troubled by the way some people have been wiling to dismiss the pandemic as something that's only deadly for elderly people, as though that's somehow acceptable.

"When you look at individuals that become really sick, or don't make it, and they're under 60 or 70 years old, can you say that they were ready to go? Probably not,” she said. “So why is it that after 70 years old, they're ready to go? And they lived a long life. That's not the case for a lot of individuals I talked to.”

And COVID-19 has also touched Swartz personally. She's lost two members of her extended family to the virus.

"If you've gone through COVID and haven't known somebody personally that's passed, you are very lucky,” she said. “Because some people have lost both their grandparents. I've seen people lose their parents, their aunts and uncles — I mean, some people have lost their children."

As it has been for so many people, the pandemic is ever present in her life.

After months of a mostly solitary existence, Swartz was anticipating with great joy a small family Christmas gathering, with virus precautions.

But the disease she's spent months tracking intervened again this week.

"My brother-in-law has COVID. So my brother in law, my sister and my two nieces will be quarantined at home. So now, Christmas is not going to happen for our family,” Swartz said.

Despite the holiday disappointment, the loss, the exhaustion and the impacts of a relentless pandemic, it's also been a year she's spent steeped in doing the work she's most passionate about.

She plans to make a career of working with infectious diseases, but she'll be thrilled if this is the last global pandemic of her career.

Looking back, looking ahead As 2020 comes to a close, several MPR News reporters have been checking back in with people they met earlier in the pandemic — about how their lives have changed, and about what they're hopeful for in the new year.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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