AP journalists shed light on the secretive world of contact tracing from the perspective of both the tracers and their subjects.

One of the keys to stopping the coronavirus is finding out who has it, tracing every person they’ve had contact with, and warning those people to isolate. The pandemic has taken this little-known job – contact tracing – and made it a global matter of life or death. 

But what does contact tracing look like? Who are these people, and what do they do for 12 hours a day, six days a week? Across the AP, reporters sought access to the investigators, only to be rebuffed for privacy reasons. In Utah, correspondent Brady McCombs pitched to a local health department that he and photographer Rick Bowmer could show the world how contact tracing is conducted, and would be careful not to reveal legally protected health details. 

Once they were in the door, the curtain rolled back. Bowmer and McCombs are both the kind of journalists who put people at ease, engendering trust. They spent hours across parts of five days shadowing several investigators, listening and watching. McCombs, a text native who has learned video, wrote the story and shot the video, working closely on the edit with video journalist Krysta Fauria, who voiced the piece. And in a county office with seemingly modest visual potential, Bowmer made telling photos.

What McCombs and Bowmer saw was hugely revealing: The nurses doing these jobs aren’t just reading questions off a list. They are part detective, part therapist and confidant. People lie, because they need to return to work, or forget to mention an outing. The investigators call them every day for two weeks, and slowly piece together all the potential contacts. The tale of the investigators talking and commiserating and cajoling people to get them to comply was something simply unseen in other coverage or descriptions of contact tracing, something the investigators themselves couldn’t even put into words until McCombs pointed it out. 

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At her office at the Salt Lake County Health Department in Salt Lake City on May 11, 2020, health investigator Maria DiCaro grabs a tissue to wipe her eyes after being thanked on a phone call with a person who had been exposed to an individual who tested positive for the coronavirus.

AP Photo / Rick Bowmer

The care they took to get to know each person’s story led to a major break in the story. During one call, McCombs and Bowmer caught an emotional moment: The person on the other end of the line, who had been talking to the investigator for days, thanked her for caring. The investigator hung up the phone and cried. Bowmer caught the moment in an emotional photo, and McCombs on video. But the investigator couldn’t reveal the woman’s name, and McCombs didn’t have any details to track her down. 

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Jaime Ortega, left, sits at a window with daughters Anissa Archuleta, center, and Alexis Archuleta, at their home in Midvale, Utah, May 18, 2020. All three had to be tested and monitored for two weeks after they stopped by a birthday party for a young cousin whose father unknowingly had the coronavirus. The women all tested negative, but received daily calls from health investigator Maria DiCaro to check on any symptoms.

AP Photo / Rick Bowmer

Enter the internet: The woman who thanked the investigator also tweeted her thanks at her. McCombs found the tweet and reached out to the woman, and she, her mother and sister agreed to an interview, video and photos. Telling the other side of the story, from the perspective of a person who gets a cold call from a stranger asking about their personal lives, gave the AP a huge win over stories from other sources about contact tracing. 

AP’s story was used by more than 200 outlets, with strong engagement on social media.

For a timely and revealing package on a critical element of the pandemic response, McCombs and Bowmer share this week’s Best of the States award.

For AP’s complete coverage of the coronavirus: 

– AP’s hub for comprehensive all-formats coverage of the virus outbreak.

– Understanding the Outbreak: Stories explaining the new coronavirus.

– One Good Thing: Daily stories of hope and humanity amid the crisis.

– Ground Game: Inside the Outbreak: AP’s podcast series.

Lives Lost: Stories behind the victims of COVID-19.