LISTEN: As Alaska’s COVID-19 count spikes, contact tracers bear the strain

A woman stands outside of her Anchorage home.
Kris Knudsen is a contact tracer with the University of Alaska Anchorage. She’s one of hundreds of tracers across the state tasked with calling Alaskans infected with the coronavirus. She says as case numbers skyrocket, the job is getting harder. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

An army of hundreds of contact tracers across the state are picking up their phones each day to call Alaskans infected with the coronavirus.

One of them is Kris Knudsen. She’s roughly five months into the job. And as cases continue to soar, she said, the work is getting harder.

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Kris Knudsen normally starts a contact-tracing phone call a little like this:

“Hi, I’m a contact tracer with the State of Alaska. And I’m hoping that you have some time to talk to me today.”

Knudsen said there’s an art to the conversation.

“I don’t want to sound commanding,” she said. “I want to smile and be the nice grandma. The person you don’t want to hang up.”

The view of a contact tracer's office, including a desk, chair and desktop computer screen.
Kris Knudsen is a contact tracer with the University of Alaska Anchorage, one of a patchwork of Alaska organizations who’ve hired people to help track and limit the spread of COVID-19. Knudsen works from an office in her basement in Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Knudsen is 68 years old, and a retired University of Alaska Anchorage professor who decided to join UAA’s contact tracing team over the summer.

“My mom was a public health nurse in Bethel. So I heard about the tuberculosis epidemic growing up. This was a big, a big deal,” she said. “And, so, when this came along, I kind of felt like, I would like to do something.”

UAA is one of a statewide patchwork of organizations that have hired workers to call Alaskans infected with the virus — reminding them to stay home, asking about their symptoms and who they’ve recently spent time with.

Health officials have described contact tracers as critical to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, and key in gathering information from those infected to boost the state’s understanding of the illness. But, as the number of infections soars in Alaska, contact tracers, including Knudsen, are feeling the strain.

“I never would have thought we would be getting 600 cases a day,” she said. “That’s just insane.”

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For weeks, health leaders have warned the continuing surge in coronavirus cases is overwhelming Alaska’s contact tracers.

Tracers can no longer call the close contacts of every Alaskan infected with the disease, as they did earlier on. Tracers also aren’t trying to pinpoint the source of infection for each Alaskan, as they once were.

Further complicating the job: A backlog in data entry at the state level means more time passes between someone testing positive and being called by a tracer — if they’re called at all.

RELATED: Alaska’s high COVID-19 case counts are even higher than the state’s data show

Leaders of contact-tracing teams say they’re seeing more burnout and turnover.

The job was already hard, even without the rapid rise in cases. Knudsen has had people hang up on her, block her number and tell her the virus isn’t real.

“They’re telling members of their family who are sick — they’re telling them that it’s all a hoax, it’s just the flu, get over yourself, you know?” Knudsen said.

“And you’re kind of going… ” She let out a long sigh.

Knudsen said she talks to Alaskans who are scared to tell their employers they can’t come into work, and others who aren’t sure who will take care of their kids if they’re supposed to isolate away from them.

“You wake up at three in the morning and you’re going, ‘Oh, what about this family? What about this?'” Knudsen said.

And then, there are the Alaskans who are really, really sick. The increase in coronavirus-related hospitalizations is reflected in Knudsen’s calls.

“We have had more calls where there is a relative in the hospital, you know, or two relatives in the hospital, or your call is answered by the spouse at home, while the other spouse is in the hospital,” she said. “And that’s really tough.”

All of the challenges aside, Knudsen said what keeps her going are all of the stories of tracers making a difference. They’ve identified clusters of cases, and worked to help get them under control. They’ve heard Alaskans struggling to breathe over the phone, and advised them to get to a doctor.

Knudsen said just getting thanked makes the job worth it.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.