How librarians became secret weapons in fight against coronavirus

Elise Solé
·7 mins read

With many libraries closed or offering limited services in a pandemic infecting nearly five million people nationwide, many librarians have found a useful outlet for their resourcefulness and fact-finding skills: volunteering as contact tracers to help track the spread of COVID-19.

Librarians who are city employees may be called upon to assist with weather-related disasters or even events like bioterrorism, John Szabo, the city librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, tells Yahoo Life. “When hired, we sign a document acknowledging the potential of a disaster, but in March the mayor of Los Angeles declared that all city employees could be cast in some capacity.”

There are volunteer opportunities at homeless shelters, city meal distribution or virtual children’s story hours. But some library staff in California, North Carolina and New York have become “contact tracers,” mapping the path of exposure after an individual tests positive for an infectious disease with the goal of preventing further transmission.

In May, the Centers for Disease Control praised contact tracing as a “tried and true effective” intervention along with early case identification and isolation. However, according to the New York Times, the strategy has been compromised by mass delay of test results, public refusal to participate and an inability to outpace the virus. In late June, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said although there were roughly 28,000 contact tracers working throughout the U.S., “I’ve estimated that I think the nation’s going to need close to 100,000 in this space.”

Contact tracing is a prevention strategy that requires accessible testing, a database of positive test results from county health departments and case investigators (either nurses or tracers themselves) who call infected individuals to ask for lists of people with whom they had close contact. The CDC defines “close contact” as people interacting within six feet of one another and for a period of 15 minutes, two days before symptoms appeared, or in asymptomatic cases, two days before the date of the test.

A portion of a phone script read by contact tracer callers in Wake County, North Carolina. (Screenshot: Courtesy of the Wake County Government)
A portion of a phone script read by contact tracer callers in Wake County, North Carolina. (Screenshot: Courtesy of the Wake County Government)

Tracers work the phone lines, asking exposed people to self-quarantine for 14 days, the incubation period for COVID-19. In her role, Hallie Yamamoto, a youth services librarian at the Green Road Library in Raleigh, North Carolina, reads from a script: “I’m calling to let you know that you have been in contact with someone that has tested positive for COVID-19...” listing a specific date, offering educational resources on quarantining and scheduling daily phone calls to monitor symptoms.

Because libraries currently don’t serve as quiet and free spaces or restrooms for the homeless population, contact tracing is how Yamamoto helps. “Librarians are a natural fit for contact tracing because we’re good at customer service and crisis management,” she tells Yahoo Life.

Yamamoto, who earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science and took an oral vow to follow the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics, adds, “People come to the library needing information about law, divorce and medicine and we connect them to resources. For example, someone newly diagnosed with an illness who doesn’t have internet access.”

Hallie Yamamoto, a youth services librarian at the Green Road Library in Raleigh, NC, is working as a contact tracer during the coronavirus crisis. (Photo: Courtesy of Hallie Yamamoto)
Hallie Yamamoto, a youth services librarian at the Green Road Library in Raleigh, NC, is working as a contact tracer during the coronavirus crisis. (Photo: Courtesy of Hallie Yamamoto)

The workload fluctuates, says Yamamoto, sometimes spiking after celebrations or holidays. One busy period followed the Fourth of July — heading into that weekend, more than 57,000 new coronavirus cases were reported in the U.S. “I predict we’ll also see a spike after Labor Day,” she says.

Since tracers are trained in HIPPA (the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act), Yamamoto cannot disclose the identity of the infected person, operating under a familiar cloak of confidentiality. “Many people don't know this, but if you and your legal partner have two separate library cards, we can't check your partner's books out to you without their written consent,” she says. “[So], imagine you were considering a divorce and had not yet told your partner. If you check out a book about divorce and your partner picks it up, that could be a terrible situation for both parties. Because we are committed to personal privacy, we are already halfway to following HIPAA at the library anyway.”

Lupie Leyva, who works at the Robert Louis Stevenson Library in Los Angeles, is one of 136 library staff who have volunteered for the city’s Disaster Service Worker Program since June, according to data sent to Yahoo Life by the office of Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti. “[Contact tracing] allows me to continue helping the community,” Leyva, who is bilingual, tells Yahoo Life. “I probably make 70 percent of my phone calls in Spanish.”

Lupie Leyva, who works at the Robert Louis Stevenson Library in Los Angeles, works during the pandemic as a contact tracer. (Photo: Emily Leyva)
Lupie Leyva, who works at the Robert Louis Stevenson Library in Los Angeles, works during the pandemic as a contact tracer. (Photo: Emily Leyva)

Sometimes people hesitate to discuss their personal health with a stranger. “We try to convince them it’s for [the] public good...and to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” she says. “Some are wary of scams...or don’t trust government agencies. But a legitimate contact tracer never asks for one’s immigration status, social security number or bank information.”

In these moments, Levya leans on her expertise in “reference interviews,” a library technique that uses open-ended questions to help people find books. “One example is, ‘Where is your psychology section?’ That can mean different things: self-help, mental health disorders, a biography of Freud, a college textbook or topics like child development, parenting, relationship advice or dream interpretation,” she says. “...I've helped women who were looking for a shelter to get away from their abusive husbands, people experiencing homelessness find a place to receive mail, get food and access to a shower and immigrants find a reputable community organization to help them with residency or naturalization forms.”

In Denver, where 28 library staff volunteers are waiting to be trained as contact tracers, employees from the city’s 26 libraries are supported by a Community Resource team comprised of four social workers and six peer navigators and receive de-escalation and trauma training. “So this is our bread and butter: privacy, empathy and research,” Michelle Jeske, the Denver City Librarian in Colorado and current president of the Public Library Association, tells Yahoo Life.

“[These are] sensitive and important topics that could save lives,” she adds. “It can be challenging and rewarding.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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