Retired folk are supposed to volunteer. But I was not motivated to do so until the COVID-19 pandemic, when our local KFLA public health unit put out a call for help in contact tracing late in 2020. Apparently more than 200 people responded to the appeal — and about 20 of us were chosen, most retired health care professionals–nurses, doctors, and pharmacists.

We were required to follow an online course, and then attend two days of training before being unleashed on the telephones and computers to perform our tasks. My usual shift was all day Fridays. Sometimes I’d fill an extra shift in surges or when other workers were away. A massive database kept track of all the people who had been in contact with a “case” (i.e., someone who had tested positive). We would pick up the tasks each day, one by one. We had to inform the contact of their exposure (if they did not already know) and explain what to do: how to isolate, how to manage within the home with housemates and family members, when and where to get tested and how often. Then we charted our work in the computer database and made new tasks for follow up. When I started, the isolation period was 14 days from the exposure — it grew shorter over the year that I did the work. Vaccines came in the middle of the year and the rules changed accordingly.

The calls mostly went well. Sometimes they were contentious or upsetting as contacts could be frightened, angry, or overwhelmed. Often we supplied information about financial supports and how to obtain food or medicine during isolation. The information that we gathered was subject to privacy laws, which we all understood from our earlier employment. We spoke with essential workers, teachers, daycare workers, parents of school kids and hockey players, immigrant families, university students and professors, grandmothers, farmers, police officers, partygoers, and, sometimes, our neighbours.

Although we worked individually in separate booths, wearing masks, using lots of sanitizer and disinfectant wipes– there was a certain esprit de corps — we were a team. For most of us, it was the only outside human contact that we had during the lengthy lockdowns.

The regular staff were nice to us, explained what was happening, and they were excessively grateful for what seemed like a modest contribution. Sometimes we made calls to other parts of Ontario if their local services were overwhelmed. We learned that Kingston was the only region to use volunteers and that some health units had given up tracing contacts when case numbers were too large. We sometimes felt a bit smug.

Then omicron entered Canada through eastern Ontario — and we too were overwhelmed. From being the best in the province, Kingston briefly became the worst. And soon it was clear that vaccines did not prevent the infection, although they certainly made a difference to the severity of the illness. Case numbers exploded and the number of contacts spiralled beyond measure. A test was needed to come out of isolation, but appointments for tests were scarce because so many people needed them. People with symptoms were told to simply assume it was COVID and stay home. Without tests, positive cases went unrecognized, consequently, contacts could not be identified for tracing. Our shifts were cancelled at first week by week, then definitively. Ironically, the worse the pandemic became, the least we could do.

It had been a year of dedicated work, interesting, sincere, fulfilling…and yet, I wondered if we had accomplished anything at all. The tyranny of negative evidence: you cannot measure what did not happen.

Once the omicron situation came under better control, we were invited to a little lunchtime reunion. Here is some of our team… I am fourth from left. Our amazing leader at the top.

Volunteer contact tracers at KFLA Health unit April 2022.