Faced with spiking cases and entering a period health experts warn may be the pandemic’s worst yet, Philly is adding a new tactic to contact tracing efforts: taking them online.

Contact tracers are a front line of defense in the city’s response to the coronavirus, tasked with calling residents who’ve tested positive, discovering who they may have infected by physical proximity, and then calling those people to let them know they’re at risk. It’s a demanding job, and the fall surge has the 100-worker corps feeling overwhelmed.

“The days are really busy,” said Denisse Agurto, a Spanish language contact tracer and case investigator for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “Now there’s more demand, so we’re strained.”

To help ease the workload, the department is rolling out two new digital feedback options.

Instead of just relying on calls and direct interviews to glean information, tracers will be able to text a link to an online survey, so people who’ve tested positive can provide answers there, on their own time.

And instead of verbally telling tracers who they’ve had contact with, positive-testing people can enter that info via a new website portal. Then the Health Department will reach out to those contacts, keeping the original case anonymous.

Both these tools are set to go live in the next two weeks, according to contact tracing program manager Sara Grossman, hopefully before the winter surge hits an untenable peak.

A concerted effort to tamp down spread will be required to avoid the kind of hospital overload the city faced last spring, Health Commissioner Farley said during a Tuesday briefing, during which he implored residents to wear masks and avoid social gatherings, even small ones with friends or family.

“Behavior that was once safe is now dangerous,” Farley said. “Things you could get away with a couple months ago, you can’t get away with now.”

Cases and positivity rate have climbed sharply in Philadelphia — both saw a four-fold increase over the past month. The number of people hospitalized for the virus is also increasing; state data shows more than 375 COVID patients in the region, compared to 90 at the end of September.

Contact tracers are overburdened — and some people refuse to answer

Philly’s is averaging 500 new positives daily, so the city’s team of 130 or so contact tracers cannot get to everyone. During the last week of October, 47% of the reported cases did not receive outreach.

So the tracers are shifting their focus, concentrating on people in long-term care facilities or regularly going to schools or daycares. “We’re working on prioritizing the cases we think are most at risk for spreading the disease to others,” Grossman explained.

Argurto, the Spanish language contact tracer, said that without the new online tools, each case requires a 20-minute interview, and often at least one follow-up call. She’s used to having about 10 to 15 calls a day.

On Tuesday, she had to juggle more than 25.

Agurto’s eight-person department usually has half the team conducting interviews and half tracking down new contacts. But with their workload growing, four of those staffers have begun doing both.

Then there’s the problem of getting people to answer the phone.

During the last week of October, 11% of people called by Philly’s contract tracers were unable to be reached or refused to be interviewed. That number appears to be growing.

“I think it’s because … they’ve reopened places and people go have parties and all this stuff,” Agurto said. “They feel it’s safe to be out there.”

She’s hoping the forthcoming survey and contact entry website will help the problem. Maybe, Agurto said, people will be more willing to participate if they don’t have to talk to someone or agree to a time-consuming interview.

Legit contact tracing calls come from 215-218-XXXX

If you do get the contact tracing call, how do you know you should answer? There are a few ways to be sure it’s legit.

First, Grossman said, you’ll likely get a text saying that a contact tracer is planning to give you a call soon.

The call will come from a number that looks like this: 215-218-XXXX. The last four digits will depend on the extension of the employee who’s calling you.

If you screen your calls, that’s fine. The contact tracer will leave a voicemail and a call back number.

In the message or when they speak with you, they’ll introduce themselves as working with the Health Department — and they’ll never ask for confidential information like social security number or any financial or banking info.

If you want to be extra safe, you can ask them to email you from their city email address. All contact tracers have one. Another extra step, if you’re so inclined: Tell them you’re going to hang up and call Philly’s coronavirus hotline directly to ensure that’s who’s trying to reach you. That number is 215-685-5488.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...