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Contact Tracers' Call Lists Are Growing Amid Latest COVID Surge, And Omicron Variant Just Now Rearing Its Head

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Dangerous variants, vaccine hesitancy, and large family gatherings; that formula is keeping contact tracers busy--so busy that the city is ramping up contact tracing operations.

Morning Insider Tim McNicholas shows us what the job is like for a small community health center contracted by City Hall.

It's a phone call you don't want to get. Contact tracer Fascia Edwards recently checked in with a Chicago family exposed to COVID-19.

"Runny nose? Any congestion? Is she still coughing?" Edwards asked during a recent call.

She learned a child in the family contracted the virus at school—then it spread to mom.

"They come home, and they bring it home, and then if the mother or the father or other siblings in that situation are not vaccinated, they're gonna get it too," Edwards said.

The recent rise in COVID cases keeps Edwards busy—along with other contact tracers at PCC Community Wellness, a health center that also provides COVID tests.

Anyone who tests positive then gets a phone call from one of PCC's contact tracers. The number of positive cases from PCC's tests jumped from just 8 positive cases in mid-September to 35 in mid-November.

Add in the people exposed to those who tested positive, and contact tracers were already making more calls than usual before Thanksgiving. Now PCC Director of Care Coordination Jessie Reuteler says the numbers are staying high.

"We're starting to see an increase in the number of positive cases that we're calling since Thanksgiving," Reuteler said. "With omicron rearing its head, gathering with family members is a very risky thing to do if folks are unvaccinated."

PCC staff say they make the most calls to areas with low vaccination rates.

After a year as a contact tracer, Edwards knows some calls are harder than others.

'I have had a couple of deaths that really impacted me, because I had just talked to them, and then when I called back two days later they were gone. So that was very emotional for me," Edwards said.

She's happy on this latest follow-up, though; the whole family was still around.

The city says they're shifting resources and adding staff to try to bolster their contact tracing efforts. That includes shifting 100 staff workers who were focused on vaccine education back to their original focus as contact tracers.

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