Pains of Yesterday, Odds of Tomorrow: A Contact Tracer’s Story

Cries of anguish and mourning fill hospital walls day by day. Sorrow and anxiety flood communities as the virus’s monstrous touch claims lives. The cheerful and golden world we once experienced is simply a memory of the past; our world today is a dark and desolate place terrorized by an invisible enemy.

Rising COVID cases continue to overwhelm hospitals and frontliners.
Image Credit: Pixabay

Yet not all hope is lost. In the midst of a dismal and debilitating era, a glimmer of hope stems from the angelic wings of our frontliners and contact tracers. They are the vanguards in our fight against the pandemic — the rallying warriors who are turning the tide in this battle. They are not risking their lives for a decent salary or for selfish gains; rather, they are putting themselves on the line because of their altruistic love for the Filipino people.

“It’s my passion to help. Hindi ko makayang iwanan ang mga Pilipino dahil alam ko na I can help these people. Kung tutuusin, kaya ko namang magpa-abroad o mag-work from home, pero ito ang gusto ko,” says Mikhail Lawrence Ramrod Llorca, the Contact Tracing Head of the Pasay City Epidemiology and Surveillance Unit.

Llorca, a contact tracer by profession but a community helper by passion, shared the experiences and challenges he encountered amidst the pandemic in a press conference held during the 2021 Ditto Sarmiento Journalism Cup, last October 10.

Llorca narrating his pandemic story.
Image Credit: DSJC Facebook Page

Arduous routine

Like any other frontliner, Llorca had simple beginnings. The medical professional was casually employed as a public health nurse in 2015, while studying epidemiology in Pasay City. His early days were simple. He would search and find patterns in the spread of communicable diseases. At times, he will also investigate food poisoning cases and collect specimens.

“We investigate disease cases. We also coordinate with hospitals, may mga partners kami sa health centers. Kasama rin sa epidemiology ang specimen collection, such as swabbing. Noon, nakaconcentrate lang kami sa vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and influenza-like diseases such as Dengue,” Llorca shared.

He did not expect that he and his team would soon have to defend the lives of millions against a contagion.

What was once a straightforward schedule became a jam-packed and wearisome routine. Llorca wakes up before the sun could even rise. He will then assume his post in the Contact Tracing Command Center (CTCC) and will wait calmly for the lab results from the Department of Health (DOH). Once he finds out that a member of the community is positive for COVID, he will coordinate with the local Disaster Risk Reduction Management (DRRM) to transport the infected individuals to the quarantine facility.

The contact tracing comes next. After guiding and comforting the patients in the isolated quarantine facility, Llorca will have to visit households and determine the close contacts of the infected individuals. He will knock on the door of every family within a 10-house-radius from the patient’s home.

As he interviews the potential close contacts of the patient, he will be sporting an assuring and empathic smile. Llorca believes that a contact tracer should not show a robotic and monotonous personality. He wants to comfort or console patients and close contacts who may be suffering. In an age of darkness and desolation, he and his fellow frontliners have the courage to keep on smiling.

“Maging courteous, maging magalang, iyan ang palagi kong sinasabi sa mga contact tracers. Minsan kasi nagiging robot, kinukuha lang ang lahat ng details. Kamustahin niyo naman muna kasi maysakit ang tao. Napakahalaga iyan,” Llorca explained.

As Epidemiology Head, Llorca will still have to analyze information from his fellow tracers. He will listen patiently to the 290 tracers from the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the Barangay Health Emergency Responders. He will then compile the reports of the Philippine National Police (PNP) who are tasked to capture and detain the violators of local pandemic regulations.

Then, he’ll have to get into the field again. After studying the reports of COVID cases, he will visit the areas where the virus is prevalent. Even though he is risking his life and safety, he knows he is needed to address the health concerns in these areas. Valiantly and fearlessly, he will journey to the regions plagued by the virus.

Llorca will go home late at night to address the emergency cases of Pasay City. There, he will drift off to sleep, alone and away from his family and fiancee, only to wake up and carry more insurmountable tasks the next day.

Sisyphean trials

Being a frontliner is not an easy task, as cliché as it may sound.

Llorca recounts having been separated from his family for months. As he was working on the field and saving the lives of innocents, he was not able to answer phone calls from his family members and his father. He did not know that it was his father’s last phone call.

“Tinatawagan ako ng Tatay ako habang nandoon ako sa community at nag-contact tracing. 30-40 seconds na nagring ang phone ko, ngunit hindi ko siya nasagot. Akala ko pauwi na si Daddy sa panahong iyon at okay naman siya. But, apparently may nararamdaman siya. Hindi na kami nagkita na conscious siya,” Llorca said.

That isn’t the only challenge frontliners will have to journey through. Llorca said that it’s also difficult for them to wear the same excruciating Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for eight to 12 hours. Their protocols on wearing face masks are also stringent and demanding.

For Llorca, it’s also heartbreaking to know that you are holding the fate of the infected person and his family. His worst experience as a frontliner was helping a married couple mourn for their newly-born child who passed away.

“Positive ang mother and father, so noong nanganak ang nanay, hindi niya nayakap ang baby niya o napakita sa Tatay. Imagine iyong dilemma na i-explain mo sa kanila na ang anak nila na hindi nakitang buhay ay ipipigilan mo pa na iburol because of the protocol,” he shared.

Frontliners’ open letter

Our selfless and dedicated guardian angels are not as powerful as they look. Deep down, they are also human — exhausted, weakening, and mourning. But it is their love for the Filipino people that rejuvenates their tired spirits.

“Hindi ko kayang mag-back-off lalo or umatras lalo na ngayong may surge ng virus. Nasa passion namin ang pagtulong at pag-alaga,” Llorca stated.

They only hope that the Filipino people will reciprocate that love. Llorca called on the youth and other members of the community to self-report if they tested positive for COVID. He also asked infected persons to isolate themselves, cancel their appointments, and tell their close relatives and contacts to take a swab test as soon as possible. Moreover, he emphasized that following pandemic regulations is the key to COVID recovery.

Frontliners continue to brave the odds amidst the pandemic.
Image Credit: Jonathan Borba, Pexels

Being separated from his family, carrying insurmountable amounts of tasks, fighting a lethal virus — Llorca’s story patterns that of our frontliners today. Their angelic light is our glimmer of hope amidst these trying times. It is only fitting to support our medical workers who are willing to bear the pains of yesterday and fight the odds of tomorrow.

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