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Due to COVID-19‘s serious swing upward this past weekend, it’s more important than ever to identify high-risk areas. A key method to track the coronavirus, as it wheedles its way across the country, is to gather data from those directly touched by COVID-19. A successful contact tracer needs specific skills; among those, a friendly personality and an understanding of data.

The desperate need to track information on the virus has resulted in plentiful job opportunities, but research shows being a contact tracer is not a job for everyone. Only 18% of contact tracers are well-suited to the job, according to data from Harver, an employee recruitment and training platform. In the rush to bring on much-needed staff, hirers don’t vet well or are as discerning as they might have been.

Wanted: Empathy and sensitivity

The need to hire so many quickly—an expected eventual 100,000 to 300,000—has produced mixed results. You may not need a college degree to become a contact tracer, but you need the right personality and temperament, as well as a thirst for some detective work. A contact tracer must draw out information while encouraging interviewees to retrace steps and test memories while being situationally sensitive.

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Harver just launched a site specifically for those who have an interest in becoming a contact tracer. It is estimated that COVID-19’s trajectory, as well as the real need to gather important information through person-to-person contact, has made the job critical, as well as coveted.

In April, Harver realized “how critical this job is, and how little people knew about it,” said Ben Porr, Harver vice president, people science. Federal guidance was not as helpful as CDC guidance, which defined the role and duties of a contact tracer working in the midst of the pandemic.

Major hiring ahead

But an element was missing, Porr said, “Who’s successful in it, and how to hire people.” By the beginning of June, Porr said Harver decided, “‘Yes, this is going to be a role that’s growing and not going away,’ and we really did our analysis to develop the assessment.”

Research showed that cities, states, and local governments will be joined by private organizations in the effort to look at the root causes of the coronavirus. This means that each agency will be hiring.

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Ideal candidate traits

Both social and data skills are key, Porr said, because the interviewees are often distressed. Curiosity is a valued trait, as the job entails investigating. Porr says that Harver identified what makes a very good candidate—”critical thinking skills,” he said. “You’ll be looking at data, but also talking with people. You should be able to analyze information, and draw conclusions.”

Next, he said: “It’s the interpersonal skills and cultural sensitivity, make sure you’re building trust, you’re educating them, you’re showing empathy. Because you’re dealing with people in a very emotional state, from frustration or concern or anger, you want to calm the subject down. So, those interpersonal skills, cultural sensitivity, as well as organization skills [are needed].”

It’s a bit of having the ability to “read the room,” even if the conversation is taking place on the phone, or on the phone or in person. Porr said that it’s difficult to estimate how long each interview will be, but likely, “a half-hour, give or take, 15 minutes.” Lastly, a contact tracer should “be very structured and organized, because you have to follow certain protocols, to make sure you’re asking the right steps and documenting them accurately.”

The ability of the contact tracer “to identify potentially infected individuals quickly is critical,” Porr said, “but [so is] educating the public about quarantining procedures and how the virus spreads. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.” Some people are listening to hoaxes, he said, instead of going by information and guidelines established by the CDC and John Hopkins University, which Haver also uses in its data.

Drawing out details from COVID-19 victims

There won’t be a single script for each contact tracer to use. It will vary, Porr said, based on comprehension, and trust between the contact tracer and subject. A contact tracer should be sensitive and respectful of privacy.

A contact tracer will ask subjects about when they think they might have contacted COVID-19, where they’ve been since, when did symptoms begin, as well as a chronicle of how the illness affected them. Reports offer widely divergent experiences.

There are certainly more easily defined markers for high-risk, including age, preexisting conditions, auto-immune diseases, a history of tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, but experts have not singled out all the commonalities (effect, duration, etc).

Finding candidates with all the qualities of an ideal contact tracer is a challenge and sheds light on why so few hired are well-suited. Being bilingual will be a plus. Porr speculated the pay for the job would be about $25/hour. Harver’s new platform provides an assessment, to classify strengths and weaknesses. Employers, too, will be able to fast-track to find candidates.

Contact tracings’ roots

Contact tracing has its roots in tracing epidemics, specifically, the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s, but the role has grown in the information age. “The big data aspect of it,” Porr said, is that there are apps that can track people and information on where someone has been can be observed. He added, “very little of the population is using that [now], but you have to be aware of it.”

“Jogging” an interviewee’s memory, by finding out where they’ve been before becoming infected, may also be critical in gathering the information necessary to paint the entire picture by finding the root of the contraction of COVID-19.

Harver’s new site allows those interested to take assessments to determine how well they’d do as a contact tracer because even though they have the interest, they must also have qualities and traits for a job that—for the ideal candidate—is a combination of detective, interviewer, social worker, critical thinker, and organizer. But because of the great need, even those who don’t possess every single desired quality have more opportunity to be hired as a contact tracer and learn on the job.