LA librarians try to end COVID-19 pandemic faster by being contact tracers


Los Angeles is filled with thousands of public employees, including bus drivers, maintenance and utility workers, and librarians.

Joe Valdivia started his career with the LA County Public Library in 2001. He was 21, and worked as a library aide at the Norwalk Library. He was in charge of sorting and stacking books, helping patrons find what they’re looking for, and kept the branch tidy. 

As it turns out, public employees like Valdivia are required to take an oath before they begin their civil servant job. It’s part of an agreement that says public employees in California can be called upon to work as Disaster Service Workers (DSW) during emergencies.

Today, for Valdivia and hundreds of others in LA, that means working new jobs as contact tracers.

In his new role, Valdivia spends all day working from his garage, calling Angelenos who’ve been infected with COVID-19. Despite initial uneasiness about the gig when he started in May, Valdivia has been pleasantly surprised by his new job so far.

“We thought we were going to get a lot of hang-ups. … We all know those telemarketers that call in the middle of the day. You don’t answer the phone.,” he says. “They [people he’s called] have been so inviting and trying to help. ... Some of them are just saying, ‘I'm not doing anything, I'm home. I got all the time in the world.’” 

He often starts these conversations by letting COVID-positive people know they must stay isolated. Then he asks who else they’ve been around.

“When you say I got [sic] five people that I have to contact today, that can turn into 20 or 25 people. Twenty five different personalities, different states of minds, ages, everything in between,” he says

Numbers in California

State officials estimate 20,000 contact tracers will be needed to track the spread of infection throughout California. With some libraries in LA closed, Valdivia and other library workers form a skilled but idle workforce.

Some employees have been assigned, while others have volunteered. So far, almost 300 staff from LA County and City libraries have joined contact tracing efforts. 

Trainees undergo a five day virtual academy developed by UCLA, University of San Francisco and California public health officials. That includes 20 hours of training based on epidemiology, the principles of contact tracing, and infectious disease containment strategies.

Expediting the end of COVID-19 and practicing empathy

Before the pandemic, Lupie Leyva worked as a librarian in Boyle Heights, where she grew up. 

When the chance to work as a contact tracer came knocking, she ran to answer it. The lockdown has been difficult for her family, and she sees this job as a way to bring an end to the pandemic faster.

“My kids really, really, really want things to go back to normal. I have a high school senior who's missing out on prom and graduation and all of that,” Leyva says. “I think this is the way I personally can contribute. I can take the skills that I have, and I can put them to use to try to get life back to normal.”  

After some research, she realized working as a contact tracer was in line with her experience as a librarian. At the reference desk, Leyva works with people of all walks of life. It’s her job to listen and to figure out how to help them. 

Lupie Leyva practices a contact tracing script from her desk at home. Courtesy of Lupie Leyva. 

“Empathy is one of the things you have to have as a librarian at a reference desk if you really want to be able to serve your community. You have to be able to take yourself out of who you are and put yourself in their shoes, and try to think of their information needs. … So there's a little bit of that detective work going on.”

That’s been the experience of another librarian-turned-contact tracer, Laura Valdivia, Joe’s wife. She listens carefully to what COVID-positive people are experiencing, and finds a way to help them come to terms with the need to self-isolate.

“Several who have voiced their concern about ‘When can I go back to work? I have bills to pay. I need to buy groceries.’ … You just have to be that person to listen to their concerns and validate it. ‘I absolutely understand what you’re going through and I feel for you, it’s a difficult situation.’”

Rewards of the new job

While it can be difficult to hear about people’s struggles, Joe Valdivia says it’s rewarding to find that folks want to help as much as possible.

He remembers one mom he called who was sitting with her kids, and he offered to call her back when she wasn’t as busy. “She’s like, ‘No, I can help you out. I want to help out. I'll do this.’ And then she yelled at her kids. … But she did say that she wants to help the cause, and help me, [and] help the department.”

Valdivia says it makes him feel good to get that positive feedback. 

It’s not what he expected to be doing in his 19th year as library staff, but he sees the job as his duty to help others avoid the pain of COVID-19. 

He says he’s going to keep at it relentlessly the pandemic is over.