In a quiet call centre set up in the basement of the Boole library at University College Cork (UCC), volunteers are helping tackle the spread of Covid-19 by picking up the phone and methodically making their way through a national database.
Sitting 2m apart, those staffing the phones are essentially “firefighting” the spread of Covid-19 .
That is according to Ivan Perry, professor of public health at UCC: “If you think of a fire breaking out in a forest, you’re attempting to contain it and put it out before it consumes the whole forest.
“The process of contact tracing is the way we can chase down this virus, hunt it down and ultimately break the chain of transmission or contagion,” he said.
UCC is one of a number of HSE contact-tracing centres around the country.
Setting up a contact-tracing centre, which essentially looks and operates like a callcentre, at lighting speed, while taking into account social distancing, is no mean feat logistically.
For example, rooms that would once facilitate 50 people now must only sit 10, said Kathryn Neville, one of the organisational leads of the centre on behalf of UCC.
“Our IT department has been unbelievably brilliant at facilitating phones, computers, accounts, talking with the HSE, logistics, and IT people,” she said.
It is important to remember that contact tracing is not a helpline, she said: “We only make calls out.”
Accessing a national database, contact tracers make three different “levels” of calls; level one involves a clinician, usually a retired nurse or practicing dentist, calling to tell someone they have tested positive for the virus. Level two calls then ask that person to collate a list of the people they have been in contact with.
The third level of calls are to people to let them know they have been in contact with someone who has Covid-19 and now they must isolate. Level two and level three calls do not need to be made by a clinician.
There has been a steady stream of confirmed cases in recent weeks, Ms Neville added. “We have quite a few experienced people who, when it does ramp up, will be ready.”
One such contact tracer at UCC is Dr Martina Hayes, a dentist who practices and teaches at Cork University Dental School and Hospital.
People process the news that they have tested positive for Covid-19 differently, she believes: “Some people would need a minute or two.
“Sometimes people are genuinely shocked because their symptoms were so mild. Sometimes people are really surprised because they really didn’t want to hear that news. A lot of people might say ‘Oh no, I’ve seen people’, or ‘someone I know has asthma’, things like that. They focus on that much more than where they might have got it from.
“It’s not nice to be giving them that news but I suppose you feel at that point you can actually do something, they can give you the names of their contacts. That way they can do a good deed for the people around them so that they can come into the system, if they need help or testing.”
On a positive note, she has begun to see a definite decrease in the number of people those with Covid-19 have been in contact with, she said, adding that its now mostly confined to the people they live with.
“That’s made a huge difference and I think as well there is increasing awareness of the contact tracing process, so people have been good at keeping a log themselves of anywhere that they have been or anything that they have done.”
“I think because people are getting out a lot less often now, they are quite aware of where they have been and the numbers are way down. I think we can just hope that pays off, but a peak will have to come at some point. It just hopefully won’t be as bad a peak as it could have been if the public wasn’t being so compliant with these measures,” she said.