‘It was intense,’: Former contact tracer and ice sculptor recounts experience responding to COVID-19 pandemic

Updated: Nov. 17, 2020 at 9:55 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In the fight against COVID-19, first responders like doctors, nurses, and EMT workers come first to mind. Contact tracers though are just as much first responders.

With freezers filled to the top, and ice blocks as his medium, Dawson List made show stopping parties even more extravagant.

“It always surprises me when people ask is that ice and from my point of you I’m like well yeah, duh of course it’s ice,” said Dawson.

List says during a summer job, he gravitated towards crafting ice sculptures and the trick he could play on the eye in doing so.

“To me it’s mostly about how it interacts with the light, so visually that’s always what appeals to me and how it changes,” said List.

But similarly to how party-goers had a hard time believing what they were seeing, List remembers how he had a hard time believing a pandemic was melting his livelihood.

“Everything was getting out right canceled or postponed… when the budget gets tight the ice sculpture if you can cut that out let’s do that,” said Dawson.

Months of being out of work had List turning back to his background in science.

“They kept talking we’re going to ramp up this huge contact tracing nationwide system and we’re going to need tens to hundreds of thousands of contact tracers and I’m like well this is perfect because when the contact tracing and special events should be coming back,” said List.

So instead of hours in the freezer, List spent hours on the phone with scared, confused, and struggling families facing the dangers of COVID-19 head on.

“There was definitely times I had to psych myself up for certain calls because I was afraid of what I was going to find out when I called the person,” said List.

The statewide Louisiana contact tracing program intentionally employed Louisianans to talk fellow Louisianans through COVID-19.

“I think the more we can employ individuals from the communities with which we are seeing spikes the better because the more that someone can relate to someone on the phone and build trust very short amount of time,” said Dr. Joseph Kanter with the state health department.

At the peak of the pandemic in July and August, Dr. Kanter says the state employed more than 800 contact tracers, more than 25 times the number he says they’d usually employ for reportable diseases outside of the pandemic.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the outbreak in Louisiana in a couple weeks down the road, and that it changes with how many resources we can put into the contact tracing team. So if we were to have a big spike again, god forbid three days down the road, we’re going to have to surge and more get more contact tracers on board and it’s gonna be tough to do that in real time. That’s another challenge we don’t know what the future is going to hold,” said Kanter.

“The thing that I think needs improvement on this we still have a lot of people that run the miraculously have zero contacts which is hard to believe,” said Kanter.

Kanter says more people need to understand contact tracing is an extension of the doctor’s office. Anything you would tell a doctor is held in the same confidence as a contact tracer, bound by HIPPA and other healthcare privacy expectations.

“There to let people know that listen you may have been exposed you might be at risk and I’m telling you so you can take action and protect your family,” said Kanter.

“There was a point I was working when they were so overloaded by cases there would be hundreds of cases, it was taking a long time to get a hold of people and it’s some point you have to give up and say we need to try someone else because every person that you can’t get a hold of,” said List.

The science, List said, was also changing faster than some of the contracted call companies could keep up with. This meant constant training to keep up with the changing information to relay to potential infections.

“They explained it ‘well we’re building the airplane while were in the air’,” said List.

“We’re building the plane as were flying it so to say,” said Kanter. “I think it is what it is to be honest, this is the nature of it we want to act and learn from the most up-to-date data that’s available, particularly with COVID when there’s so much information coming down so much research happening in real time. They might be on the phone but they’re very much on the frontlines of this pandemic and we could not have the success we’re having in Louisiana without their efforts,” said Kanter.

List says he would call hundreds of families over the couple of months he worked as a contact tracer, many of those families he says he still thinks about today.

“You never see the people but you start forming a connection and relationship with them and if things don’t turn out the way you want, yeah it can be intense,” said List.

But as events start to make a small comeback and New Orleans starts to reopen, List says he doesn’t immediately think of himself as someone who saved lives contrary to what the state believes.

“It’s hard to tell you’ll never know when you did something or said something to someone where it saved someone’s life,” said List.

“Contact tracers are doing god’s work and keep it up right now this is really hard and challenging particularly in position because if you try all day long talking to people who are struggling with this and fearful uncertain about what’s going to happen,” said Kanter.

But List says he will always remember the parallels. While he can surprise and fascinate and amaze people by transforming a block of ice, it was just as unbelievable how an invisible virus changed the world around him.

Kanter says the state’s in a position where if they need to expand or contract the contact tracing program they can, of course that’s contingent on the number of cases in the state.

List tells us that events are slowly picking up, though he says he’s gotten more of a chance to explore ice as an art form during the pandemic with less commissioned ice sculptures.

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