“Will Santa Claus know where to find us now that we’ve moved?”
The question was posed by a 6-year-old boy to his mother as they were moved from her car, where they lived, to a domestic violence shelter in Commack on Christmas Eve.
The outlook looked bleak. The mother was sick, the weather was cold, the little family was hiding from an abusive ex-husband and father, and there was no money or time to tinker with even a makeshift Christmas.
But somehow, Santa found them. Thanks to the combined efforts of Alisha Maura, a COVID-19 case investigator, and Allison Alper, a community support specialist, the family received a decent place to sleep and Christmas came to a little boy who n had no idea how close. come to be removed.
When Maura called the boy’s mother, all she knew was that the woman had tested positive for COVID. During their conversation, Maura learned the rest of their heartbreaking story.
So Maura, who works for the New York State COVID Contact Tracing Project, alerted the Community Support Team. And Alper, to whom many of the toughest and most heartbreaking cases seem to be routed, tapped into his network of charities trying to save a little boy’s Christmas.
Within an hour, the family had been moved to a safe haven and Alper was busy shopping for gifts when she learned that Long Island Branches, a Middle Island charity, had already distributed her cache of Christmas toys to some 200 needy families.
“I called the mom and said, ‘Santa needs to know what your son really, really wants,'” Alper said. “Turns out he wanted Candy Land and some DC Comics characters. There was no way I was letting that kid miss Christmas.”
For nearly two years, this has been the kind of work done by the Contact Tracing Project, formed in May 2020 to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Its main objective was to identify and inform people infected with COVID and those they had come into contact with of the need to self-isolate or quarantine to protect their families and friends, as well as the community as a whole.
For the record, “contact tracers” call people who have come into close contact with someone known to have been infected; “case investigators” call those who are already infected. “Community Support Specialists” work with food pantries and other charities to help those most in need on Long Island.
But they all share the same basic job description: part investigator, part data collector, part shoulder to cry on. “A lot of these people are sick and scared,” Maura said, “and they just need someone to talk to.”
And sometimes they need more than that.
Although many have found calls from a contact tracer or case investigator to be annoying or intrusive, many others have found them helpful, reassuring and even therapeutic. In some cases, they may have saved lives. “The calls where people thank you and tell you how grateful they are are worth it,” Maura said.
People from all walks of life make up the project, from former medical professionals and lawyers to students, retirees and stay-at-home parents. Maura was compelled to join after witnessing the suffering of COVID patients while working in the emergency room at Long Island Community Hospital in Brookhaven. Alper was a social worker at a center for young adults with autism. Michelle Bono, Maura’s supervisor, was a nurse who wanted to be part of the COVID solution so badly that she was willing to do the job for free. Luckily, she didn’t have to.
Individuals like this abound in the project, and all seem to have two things in common: selflessness and a desire to help others through perhaps the most trying time of our lives since World War II.
Having been a journalist for the last 35 years of my adult life, 16 of which I spent writing about sports for this newspaper, I thought my interviewing skills would be a good fit for the job. After all, I had been talking to people who hadn’t particularly wanted to talk to me for decades.
But I found that to be a good contact tracer, you had to be more than an effective interrogator. The job turned out to require a combination of problem-solving skills that I had never needed talking to professional boxers or baseball players.
In the course of a day, I could speak to a single mother who, due to quarantine requirements, urgently needed nappies and baby food for her young children, a professional who insisted on returning to work and a lonely retiree who requested a daily check-in call, just for company. It would be my job, and later when I became supervisor, that of my crew, to find a satisfactory solution to each of these situations.
Most of the time we did. But sometimes I or one of my colleagues would be subjected to verbal abuse of the vilest and most obscene kind. A 22-year-old plotter was so shaken by an avalanche of vicious racial slurs and threats that she needed to take the rest of the day off. She was hardly alone. Tainted by politics and inflamed by certain segments of the media, some have shown themselves to be unreceptive or even hostile to our appeals.
For the past 20 months, my crew and I have been praised and reviled, chatted and hung up, called angels by some and Nazis by others. Callers told us that COVID was a hoax or a government plot to wipe out certain segments of the population. We were told that Dr. Anthony Fauci is a communist and a governor. Fascist Andrew Cuomo and Kathy Hochul. We have been subjected to lectures about the benefits of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine and the tyranny of mask mandates. We have been called propagandists and accomplices of Big Pharma.
Through it all, we have done our best to listen, empathize, advise and defuse where necessary. We never lost sight of our goal, which was to educate people, allay their fears, and help nervous audiences navigate their way through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
Along the way, we learned far more about the fears, politics, and prejudices of our friends and neighbors than any of us wanted to know. But what we have learned is that when people are united by a common fear, they tend to find common ground. That’s why the good calls, the productive conversations, the interactions that made both sides feel like something positive had been accomplished, seemed to far outnumber the bad ones.
Now that the project appears to be winding down, there is a bittersweet feeling among those of us who have been here almost from the start. Of course, our endgame has always been to get the pandemic under control and starve us of a job.
But at the same time, we knew there were aspects to it – the camaraderie between distant colleagues who have never met, the shared experience of doing something positive for our community, the sense of satisfaction that feeling of having helped a sick and frightened stranger – it would probably never happen again in any of our lifetimes.
“It’s the best and most rewarding job I’ve ever had,” Alper said.
After covering a dozen Super Bowls, half a dozen World Series, four Olympics, a bunch of Kentucky Derby races and countless championship boxing matches, let me add:
I totally agree.
This guest essay reflects the perspective of Wallace Matthews, Supervisor of Case Investigations for the New York State Contact Tracing Initiative.