Big hearts meet big challenges: How CAPTC is helping California stop the spread of COVID-19

Alberto Perez, Denise Tafoya, Veronica Espinoza and Wanda Jackson

clockwise from top left: Alberto Perez, Denise Tafoya, Veronica Espinoza and Wanda Jackson

“Public health work is work that comes from the heart,” says Denise Tafoya, Program Manager of the California Prevention Training Center’s Disease Intervention Specialist training program. That work is in the spotlight as California and the country grapple with the COVID-19 crisis. Tafoya believes the “big hearts” of her core team—disease intervention specialist trainers Wanda Jackson and Alberto Perez and operations manager Veronica Espinoza—position them well to take on the herculean task of training a massive contact tracing corps to be ready for action across the state of California. They’re bringing the skills, compassion, and dedication of more than 60 years of collective experience to the most challenging public health crisis we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

California Prevention Training Center’s expertise in disease intervention training for STI and HIV prevention makes them a natural fit for California Connected, the state’s massive contact tracing and public awareness campaign that includes training thousands of state employees to be redeployed as contact tracers. These “disease detectives,” as Gov. Gavin Newsom has called them, will reach out to people who may have been exposed to COVID, offering testing and local resources to help them quarantine. It’s a critical and urgent step in the effort to understand and contain the spread of the virus and make way for the state to open back up.

Even though this is the kind of crisis that the CAPTC team has been training for their whole careers, confronting the scale of the crisis and required response is still daunting. They typically spend five days training a core group of about a dozen disease intervention specialists face-to-face. Now they’re working with a new cohort of 800-1000 trainees every week. “We have never been asked to train someone to do contact tracing in such a short amount of time and virtually and with such large numbers,” says Tafoya. CAPTC has helped develop and deliver a statewide virtual training academy to boil down the essential skills so that redeployed state employees— who might normally work as librarians or paralegals or financial analysts—are ready to hit the phones. The training team is working long hours, constantly revisiting and refining the streamlined version of the training to teach new skills in an effective, engaging way.

It’s an intense environment for preparing people to undertake consequential and extremely sensitive work. Contact tracers need to leave the program prepared to talk strangers through the frightening news that they may have been exposed to a deadly virus and ask about details of their lives and health. Many of the trainees start out feeling like they’re prying into people’s personal lives—and the people they’re calling may feel the same way. They might be worried about sharing information with a stranger on the phone or seeking medical care because of their immigration status. They might be struggling to figure out how they can safely isolate from their families and still keep food on the table. This is why the concept of a big heart as essential to this work resonates with trainer Wanda Jackson: “You have to be very empathetic, compassionate, a good listener and be able to build trust and rapport.” The contact tracers also need the tenacity to engage people who are hesitant to talk, convey the weight of the situation and make sure they feel supported to quarantine. Spurred on by a ticking clock and a rising wave of infections, the CAPTC has to reassure nervous contact tracers, drill them on the skills, and make sure they leave with the confidence to engage in these delicate conversations.

Despite these challenges, the contact tracers are motivated by the significance of their new role. “I’ve heard people say they are happy to be part of something historic,” says Tafoya. “They want to do something for their country. They want to do what they can to help us return to some sense of normalcy.” Seeing their own passion reflected in the people they’re training is one thing that keeps the team going in one of the most challenging projects they’ve ever faced. “I’ve spent a whole career training others to make some sort of little difference,” says Alberto Perez. “With this project, it can save people’s lives. That’s a really big deal.”