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Librarian On The Frontline Of Contact Tracing Effort

Courtesy of Ramses Escobedo
Ramses Escobedo is the Branch Manager at the Excelsior Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. He is also a contact tracer for the Department of Public Health.

When the San Francisco Public Library closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees were reassigned to new jobs supporting the city's disaster response. For this edition of our ongoing series, @WORK, we speak to a librarian who now leads teams of contact tracers for the Department of Public Health.

Until early March, Ramses Escobedo spent his days coordinating library events like Aztec dance classes, helping people find books, and overseeing a staff of librarians. He’d been working in libraries since soon after he arrived in the Bay Area from Jerez, Zacatecas, Mexico. 

All of a sudden, they told us, we're gonna have to close the libraries.

As Ramses tells it, “I came here permanently, when I was 17. I got a job as a busboy. And then I had a cousin working in the San Jose public library system and he said, ‘Hey, why don't you just try to get a job here, they have a job opening coming up.’ And so I did. In San Jose I was a page, a library clerk and eventually a librarian, I had several jobs. The library basically helped me support myself and also get through school.”

He worked his way up to become the manager of San Francisco’s Excelsior branch. That’s where he was last March. “All of a sudden, they told us, we're gonna have to close the libraries,” he remembers.

So, like everyone else, Ramses went home. He Googled how to install shelves, and then installed shelves. He catalogued his vast collection of digital photos, especially the ones from his wedding last year. He cooked food and watched The Mandalorian with his wife. They’re big fans: “We're like going crazy, because it's so good.”

My skills really matched well with what they needed, and especially being bilingual.

After a few weeks, Ramses got an email from the city assigning him to service as a disaster service worker. All city employees can be called upon by the city during times of crisis to perform work that helps the city respond to what’s going on. This is called disaster service work, and city employees promise to take it on when they sign their employment contact. 

The email gave Ramses some options about what his new role could be. Contact tracing stood out to him. He says, “I thought that librarians would be adept to doing this job well. Libraries are a community hub. We know how to relate to people and create rapport. My skills really matched well with what they needed, and especially being bilingual.” 

For weeks Ramses sat in Zoom rooms and learned how exactly contact tracing works. When someone gets a positive test, case investigators from the city’s Department of Public Health call them and ask who they were in contact during the 48 hours before they started experiencing symptoms or before they received a positive test. Investigators also ask about who they’ve been in contact with since then. All those people, the people seen before and after the test or the beginning of symptoms, then get calls from the department’s contact tracers, people like Ramses. 

When asked how people respond to getting his call, Ramses said, “I think in most cases, they knew already. In most cases it’s a family member and they knew so the shock is not really there. But when they don’t know, of course there's some shock. You can hear their concern in their voices. They want to know who and when. You try to highlight what's positive about us calling, basically saying, ‘We’re here to assist you with any needs that you might have, and provide you guidance if you have any questions.’” Ramses tries to help people quarantine by connecting them to free food, cleaning supplies, and hotel rooms if they need them in order to separate from other people. 

It's much easier to create rapport with a close contact if they identify themselves with the contact tracer who is calling.

As San Francisco cases grew over the last year, the city hired more tracers. Ramses was promoted to be a team lead and now he and another librarian run contact tracing teams in Spanish. Spanish only teams enable people who are fluent in Spanish, but speak limited English, to work as tracers. 

This is important because as Ramses notes, “The Latino community has been impacted disproportionately” by COVID-19 in San Francisco. This means that in order for contact tracers to slow the spread, they need to be particularly good at building trust within Spanish-speaking communities. Speaking Spanish fluently helps tracers and the people they are calling connect. According to Ramses, “It's much easier to create rapport with a close contact if they identify themselves with the contact tracer who is calling.”

That rapport is an important step to building trust. It makes all the difference when motivating people you don’t know to make serious life changes, like staying home from work or isolating from family members. 

One call in particular stands out to Ramses, “I remember calling a Spanish-speaking father and trying to tell him ‘You know, we’re gonna have to ask you to stay in quarantine’ and you know he’s like, ‘Oh yea yea.’ And then in the background--I think he had me on speaker phone-- this all in Spanish, I just hear, ‘Yeah you tell him! I tell him all the time to stay in doors and take care of himself, not to go out, you tell him now,’ and then there was a big pause between the gentleman and I then I’m just like ‘Ummm, I think somebody just threw you under the bus.’ And then we started laughing cause he’s like ‘Yea, yea thats my daughter.’ So I was like, ‘Well, she’s not wrong. I would follow what she’s saying because she’s correct.’ And I could almost feel [him say], like ‘All right okay I’ll do it, okay, okay.’”

Ramses’ work days are long, and for him it’s a big change to be at a desk all day in-stead of on his feet in the library. “I joke around sometimes with the tracers that you know, there's a, the pancake butt effect like you feel like you have no butt,” He says. 

Ramses balances all the time in front of the computer with evenings cooking with his wife. Ramses enjoys cooking but also just likes down time with his wife. He says, “We just try to have fun with each other even with menial work, even washing dishes. I put some music on and to know if it's a good song she comes and starts dancing around me and so I reciprocate as well as I can.”

The image of Ramses returning to the Excelsior branch library someday when this is all over, feels a bit like the closing scene of an adventure movie. The main character is pulled from their usual activities and finds themself on an unexpected important mission. When they return, they slip back into normal city life, perhaps behind the front desk of your local library.

This story was edited by Lisa Morehouse and mixed by Gabe Grabin. Specials thanks to Jessica Celentano, Luz Murillo, and Jessica Flores for their assistance with this story. 

Annelise was born and raised in the East Bay and has a background in oral history and urban studies. For the last four and half years, she's worked as a criminal defense investigator at a public defenders office in the Bronx, New York and at an appellate defenders office in the Bay Area. As an investigator, she frequently interviews people involved in different parts of the criminal punishment system. Through her work, she has become passionate about the power of personal narratives and compelling stories to increase cross-cultural understanding and initate change.