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Student works as contact tracer to ‘make a difference’

Jennifer Wagner helps keep people safe during COVID-19 pandemic

Jennifer-WagnerWhen the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into Jennifer Wagner’s summer internship plans, she changed direction. The Manchester junior found a job and a purpose as a COVID-19 contact tracer.

“Sometimes, I would leave work really discouraged,” says Jenn about contact tracing. Some people don’t answer their phones and some are defiant about quarantine. Others, however, are kind. “They say, ‘Thank you so much for caring. Thank you for checking in. And that makes it so worthwhile,” says Jenn.

A double major in biology-chemistry and vocal performance, Jenn is considering a career in medicine. She was looking forward to a summer internship with Parkview Health in Fort Wayne when the coronavirus dashed those plans. So Jenn headed home to eastern Pennsylvania.

Without a summer job, Jenn was trying to figure out how to get some experience, earn some money and be productive. “It was getting frustrating to see the news, and depressing evening after evening to see the death toll rise.”

Then Chemistry Professor Jeff Osborne gave her a news article about contact tracing. Contract tracers call people who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and ask them to quarantine, typically for a couple of weeks.

The contact tracer explains how to monitor symptoms daily and might find out if the people have any barriers to quarantine: Do they need meals? Will their employers understand if they miss work? Does their housing allow for quarantining from family members? Jenn has an additional skill that comes in handy – she speaks Spanish.

After the initial call, contact tracers like Jenn will check up on people to make sure they’re OK, especially those who are isolated.

To prepare, Jenn took an online training course through Johns Hopkins University. “I learned a lot about the coronavirus.” She landed a job with Lancaster General Health in Lancaster, Pa., not far from her home in Oley, Pa. They provided her with special computer equipment to do her work.

About 75 percent of the people Jenn calls live with the person who has COVID-19. Most of the others have some idea of how, where and to whom they were exposed. A small number are in denial.

One woman Jenn called said, “What are you going to do if I don’t quarantine?” All Jenn could do is encourage her to protect others. In a similar vein, Jenn also gets frustrated when people say mask mandates are a violation of their freedom.

“I hate wearing a mask, too,” says Jenn. “As a singer, I hate not being able to sing. It’s tough. It’s frustrating. However, it’s ultimately my responsibility to protect other people. My mask protects you. Your masks protects me. It’s really a sign of respect for other human beings, and  having empathy for other human beings.” 

Jenn feels so strongly about wearing a mask that she made a video this summer to encourage others at Manchester to wear masks, too.

“Contact tracing is not necessarily an easy job all of the time,” says Jenn, who continues to work part time for Lancaster General Health while she attends Manchester, “but it is 100 percent worth it.”

Contact tracing has been excellent experience for someone thinking about a career in medicine, but something even more personal motivates Jenn. When she was 11, a doctor caught the early stage of her dad’s liver cancer, a type of cancer usually not diagnosed until it reaches an advanced stage. The early diagnosis most likely saved his life.

Now she sees contact tracing as a way to extend an early diagnosis of a potentially fatal virus to someone else. “I like having the opportunity to make a difference. If I have the chance to save one little girl’s or one little boy’s parent, it’s worth it. I’ve completed the cycle. I’ve made a difference in someone’s life. And that’s all that matters.”

By Melinda Lantz ’81