BENDIGO health workers are turning their hands to a new field, fighting COVID-19 over the phone.
In just a few weeks, a team of contact tracers has learnt to track down possible COVID-19 cases in the community.
It's a role that's completely new to members, who have been drawn from across Bendigo Health.
Established just a few weeks ago, the Bendigo contact tracing hub has already investigated more than 70 cases of COVID-19. They are assigned cases from across the entire Loddon Mallee.
To aid memory, they get COVID-19 positive interviewees to trawl through their diary, their phone calendar, their social media, even online banking.
It all helps to pinpoint exactly where the person has been while infectious.
The contact tracing process begins after a Bendigo Health doctor calls the patient, to tell them they are COVID-19 positive and do a clinical assessment.
The case is then handed over to the contact tracing team, one of whom takes it on.
A contact tracer calls the person for an interview, which can take anywhere between one and three hours.
They have a template interview, but the conversation ranges more broadly than that.
Bendigo Health Public Health Unit director Leanne Anderson said this let the team to piece together a puzzle: where the person contracted COVID-19, and who their close contacts have been.
Among the questions are, where they have been, who they were with, when they first start to feel sick.
These help the contact tracers work out roughly when the person was infectious.
They then work through where the person went, and who they were with, on every single infectious days.
The interviewees sometimes need a memory prompt, so contact tracers get them to check their online trail.
Next, they call close contacts. On average, each case about eight close contacts.
These people have to take a test, then self-isolate for 14 days, with another test on day 11.
Some already know about the diagnosis, some are unhappy about having to self-isolate. Mrs Anderson said the team's job was then to explain why it was so important these close contacts self-isolate correctly.
Ms Anderson said finding out what people will need to maintain isolation - be it food, medication, or even different accommodation - was a key part of conversations with close contacts. The contact tracers then work with them to put in place those supports.
How it works
A team of about 12 staff is rostered across seven days a week, working between 8am and 8pm.
At the start of each day, they prioritise which cases to track first. If someone works in a high risk industry, such as health, childcare, or teaching, the contact tracers know they need to reach quickest.
Those who have already been self-isolating are a lower priority.
The goal is to have completed all contact tracing interviews and phone calls within 24 hours of the positive test result. But with some larger workplaces it can take longer to get onto every contact.
Mrs Anderson said most of the cases the team had investigated so far were clearly linked to known clusters. But for some the link has taken a while to discover, she said.
A "delicate dance" of spreadsheets, teams pages, maps, and a whiteboard, helps them piece together the connections between cases.
The team comes together around the whiteboard for a huddle a few times a day, to talk through cases and progress.
It's at this point often someone will find a link between cases, Mrs Anderson said.
Contact tracing is a field that's totally new to each of the unit's staff.
All have come from a clinical background, mostly allied health or nursing staff.
Mrs Anderson said this training allowed the contact tracers to ask the right questions, and listen well and clearly.
Some were picked because of their specific skills, others were ready to be redeployed from other roles at Bendigo Health.
Andy Sloane is among the unit's contact tracers. She joined the team as part of her role at Bendigo Health supporting the multicultural community.
Ms Sloane said it was a chance to understand the contact tracing systems, so she could best support community members needing a bit of extra help.
She has been able to jump straight in, working with interpreters for those who need.
Part of the role is supporting these community members with their particular needs, such as culturally appropriate food.
Ms Sloane said a different conception of health and wellbeing from the western concept was among the particular challenges these communities faced.
Health was quite a personal thing for many people from far eastern and middle eastern countries, Ms Sloane said. Being asked so many questions about it was something they weren't used to, she said.
Ms Sloane said having the right language services was important, so people understood how to isolate.
A day in the life
The contact tracers begin by evaluating the new cases that have come in overnight.
To start each case, Ms Sloane looks at what information is already available, so she can prepopulate the questionnaire. She then looks into any other information, that might trigger extra questions.
As soon as a person has been notified they are COVID-19 positive, she makes the call.
Ms Sloane said the conversation could be quite intense. Spending such a long time on the phone, talking about personal things, she builds up a rapport, she said.
For Ms Sloane contact tracing has been a rewarding role. She said the tracers felt they were playing a really positive role in the pandemic, doing their bit and helping to educate the community.
"If you speak to the team, any one of the contact tracers, they really enjoy the work, and it's a great way to contribute to keeping the whole community safe," Ms Sloane said.
"This is our community, we're part of this community, we want to keep the whole community safe."
How can I help?
Mrs Anderson urged businesses to make sure they had out of hours contact details available, either on their website, answering machine or through Be.Bendigo.
She urged individuals to keep a diary of their movements, and to keep to the COVID-19 restrictions.
"Please stay home. Isolate, isolate, isolate. Hand hygiene. Make sure you're washing your hands, use that hand sanitiser, and keep your masks on," she said.
Have you signed up to the Bendigo Advertiser's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in central Victoria.