Since November 2020, FHS alumnus Matt Gill worked as a COVID-19 contact tracer. SFU News spoke to him to learn more about what the job is like, and how he integrates public health expertise.

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FHS alumnus gives inside look at being a COVID-19 contact tracer

June 10, 2021
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By Geron Malbas

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives across Canada. With British Columbia’s population of nearly 5 million people spread across seven health authorities, the importance of contact tracing as an essential tool in managing disease transmission and infection is more important now than ever.

SFU master of public health (MPH) alumnus Matt Gill began working as a contact tracer right out of his Fall 2020 graduation, and offered the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) a glimpse into his work.

“When it comes to public health, the job compared to my MPH is so completely different to what I’ve done; I learned a lot from my MPH, but there aren’t any courses in contact tracing,” Gill explains. “When I saw the job pop up, I thought: it’s very related, it’s new, and it would be a great experience that not many people have done before. I just thought I would seize the opportunity and try something new.”

From studying molecular biology at University of the Fraser Valley for his bachelor of science, to researching industrial carcinogen pollution with FHS associate professor Anne-Marie Nicol for his MPH, the jump into contact tracing and speaking to strangers posed a learning curve for Gill.

“I’m now talking to people all the time for my job, people I’ve never talked to before, or people who have never talked to anyone in public health; when it comes to helping medical advice or people’s safety you learn the dos and don’ts and how to interact with people,” he says. “We want to make sure people who have COVID-19, or are at risk of getting COVID-19, are healthy and well. And if they are not, we connect them with supports and advice on what the next steps are.”

Gill points out that the contact tracing team is multi-disciplinary and made up of approachable individuals. These include nurses and allied health professionals specifically hired or reassigned from health authority public health and health protection units.

Contact tracers spend around seven hours a day making calls that range from one- to 10-minute check-ins, to 20-60 minute interviews. In-depth interviews review settings and individuals in a person’s workplace or household, social interactions and more. Gill advises that if you are expecting a contact tracer to call you, or if you get a call, to be prepared with certain pieces of information.

“Going into a call with a contact tracer, if this is something you already know, and if you have already tested positive, write down a list of anyone you know – and where – you have been around within the past few days,” he explains. “This makes the process go smoother: knowing who you’ve been around, how long you were there for – as many details as you can.”

While Gill finds a great deal of fulfillment helping others as a contact tracer, he is excited to continue developing his public health expertise by publishing his industrial carcinogen pollution capstone project and seeing what opportunities are next for him.