Detective, nurse, confidant: Virus tracers play many roles

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In this Tuesday, May 19, 2020, photo, health investigator Mackenzie Bray sits in her office at the Salt Lake County Health Department in Salt Lake City. Bray normally works to track contacts for people with sexually transmitted diseases, but she was re-assigned during the coronavirus pandemic. She is now one of 130 people at this county health department assigned to track down COVID-19 cases in Utah's urban center around Salt Lake City. The investigators, many of them nurses, each juggle 30 to 40 cases that can include a total of several hundred people. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY – Health investigator Mackenzie Bray smiles and chuckles as she chats by phone with a retired Utah man who just tested positive for the coronavirus.

She’s trying to keep the mood light because she needs to find out where he’s been and who he’s been around for the past seven days. She gently peppers him with questions, including where he and his wife stopped to buy flowers on a visit to a cemetery. She encourages him to go through his bank statement to see if it reminds him of any store visits he made.

Midway through the conversation, a possible break: His wife lets slip that they had family over for Mother’s Day, including a grandchild who couldn’t stop slobbering.

“Was there like a shared food platter or something like that?” Bray asks. “There was, OK, yep ... sharing food or sharing drinks, even just being on the same table, it can spread that way.’”

Suddenly, with a shared punch bowl, the web has widened, and Bray has dozens more people to track down.

She is among an army of health professionals around the world filling one of the most important roles in the effort to guard against a resurgence of the coronavirus. The practice of so-called contact tracing requires a hybrid job of interrogator, therapist and nurse as they try coax nervous people to be honest.

The goal: To create a road map of everywhere infected people have been and who they’ve been around.

While other countries have devised national approaches, a patchwork of efforts has emerged in the U.S. where states are left to create their own program.