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Contact Tracers in Massachusetts Might Order Milk or Help With Rent. Here’s Why.

Luisa Schaeffer scrolls through her COVID isolation case list for the day: One woman is out of milk, another needs help finding a doctor and making an appointment. A man asks about help paying his rent. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It’s a familiar moment. The kids want their cereal and the coffee’s brewing, but you’re out of milk. No problem, you think — the corner store is just a couple of minutes away. But if you have COVID-19 or have been exposed to the coronavirus, you’re supposed to stay put.

Even that quick errand could make you the reason someone else gets infected. But making the choice to keep others safe can be hard to do without support.

For many — single parents or low-wage workers, for instance — staying in isolation is difficult as they struggle with how to feed the kids or pay the rent. Recognizing this problem, Massachusetts includes a specific role in its COVID-19 contact-tracing program that’s not common everywhere: a care resource coordinator.

Luisa Schaeffer spends her days coordinating resources for a densely packed, largely immigrant community in Brockton, Massachusetts.

On her first call of the day recently, a woman was poised at her apartment door, debating whether to take that quick walk to get groceries. The woman had COVID-19. Schaeffer’s job is to help clients make the best choice for the public — sometimes, the help she offers is as basic, and important, as the delivery of a jug of milk.

“That’s my priority. I have to put milk in her refrigerator immediately,” Schaeffer said.

“Most of the time it’s the simple things, the simple things can spread the virus.”

The woman who needed milk was one of eight cases referred to Schaeffer through the state government’s Community Tracing Collaborative. Contact tracers make daily calls to people in isolation because they’ve tested positive or those in quarantine because they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus and must wait 14 days to see if they develop an infection. The collaborative estimates that between 10% and 15% of cases request assistance. Those requests are referred to Schaeffer and other care resource coordinators.

“So many people are on this razor-thin edge, and it’s often a single diagnosis like COVID that can tip them over,” said John Welch, director of operations and partnerships for Partners in Health’s Massachusetts Coronavirus Response, which manages the state’s contact-tracing program.

He said a role such as resource coordinator becomes essential in getting people back to “a sense of health, a sense of wellness, a sense of security.”

With milk on its way, Schaeffer dialed a woman who needed to find a primary care doctor, make an appointment and apply for Medicaid. That call was in Spanish.

With her third client, Schaeffer switched to her native language, Cape Verdean Creole. The man on the other end of the line and his mother had both been sick and out of work. He applied for food stamps and was denied. Schaeffer texted the regional head of a state office that manages that program. A few minutes later, the director texted back that he was on the case.

Schaeffer, who has deep roots in the community, is on temporary loan to the state’s contact-tracing collaborative and will later return to her job, helping patients understand and follow their prescribed treatments at the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center.

The collaborative said most client requests are for food, medicine, masks and cleaning supplies. COVID-19 patients who are out of work for weeks or who don’t have salaried jobs may need help applying for unemployment or help with rental assistance — available to qualified Massachusetts residents.

Care resource coordinators even connect people with legal support when they need it. An older woman employed in the laundry room at a nursing home was told she wouldn’t be paid while out sick. Schaeffer got in touch with the Community Tracing Collaborative’s attorney, who reminded the company that paid sick leave is required of most employers during the pandemic.

“So, now, everything’s in place. She started getting paid,” Schaeffer said.

There are glitches as the care resource coordinators try to support people isolating at home. Some workers who are undocumented return to work because they fear losing their jobs. When the local food bank runs out, Schaeffer has had to scramble to find a local grocer to help. The free canned goods or vegetables can be like foreign cuisine for Schaeffer’s clients, some of whom are from Cape Verde and Peru. In those cases, she can reach out to a nutritionist and set up a cooking lesson via conference call.

“I love the three-way calls,” she said, beaming.

Schaeffer and other care resource coordinators have responded to more than 10,500 requests for help so far through Massachusetts’ contact-tracing program. Demand is likely greater in cities such as Brockton, with higher infection rates than most of the state and a 28.7% lower median household income.

Massachusetts has carved out care resource coordination as a separate job in this project. But the role is not new. Local health departments routinely include what might be called support or wrap-around services when tracing contacts. With cases of tuberculosis, for example, a public health worker might make sure patients have a doctor, get to frequent appointments and have their medications.

“You can’t have one without the other,” said Sigalle Reiss, president of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association.

Partners in Health’s Welch, who is advising other states on contact tracing, said the importance of having someone assist with food and rent while residents isolate isn’t getting enough attention.

“I don’t see that as a universal approach with other contact-tracing programs across the U.S.,” he said.

Some contact-tracing programs that schools, employers or states have erected during the pandemic cover only the basics.

“They’re focused on: Get your positive case, find the contacts, read the script, period, the end,” said Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of City and County Health Officials. “And that’s really not how people’s lives work.”

Casalotti acknowledged that the support role — and services for people isolating or in quarantine — adds to the cost of contact tracing. She urges more federal funding to help with this expense as well as a federal extension of the paid sick time requirement, and more money for food banks so that people exposed to the coronavirus can make sure they don’t give it to anyone else.

“Individuals’ lives can be messy and complicated, so helping them to be able to drop everything and keep us all safe — we can help them through the challenges they might have,” Casalotti said.

This story is part of a partnership that include WBUR, NPR and Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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