Producer Eileen Weiss Tracing for Answers
It’s undoubtedly refreshing when a member of the theatre community steps off stage, as well as on set, and gives her all to help control an insidious virus that has caused 131,000 deaths so far. Eileen Weiss is among the front-liners who are certainly making a difference. Producer of several Off-Broadway hits, such as Forbidden Broadway Alive & Kicking!, and Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging!, Weiss, along with her sister Sharon, are currently coproducers of their company Tweiss Productions.
We asked Weiss to give us some insight into being a contact tracer.
1. Could you share with us exactly what you do as a contact tracer?
As a contact tracer, I was part of a team covering Massachusetts that would call the close contacts of people who had been confirmed positive for COVID-19. We would ask these contacts to quarantine for 14 days and would explain what that entailed. We would call them back every two days during the two weeks to ensure they were able to quarantine safely and offer support services, should they be needed. This could include anything from food delivery to cleaning supplies to childcare to mental health support. We would also monitor their health situation — if they had any symptoms or underlying conditions, we would ask them to get tested. Some tracers focused on congregate settings, such as hospitals or nursing homes, but we mostly focused on individuals.
All of this was for the larger goal of slowing the spread of COVID-19 throughout their community. The experts guided us at Partners In Health, a nonprofit health care organization whose goals are “to bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and to serve as an antidote to despair.” It was the perfect organization to oversee this effort as their long experience in providing health care to the most vulnerable around the world was already set up to help deal with the pandemic and to answer our many questions along the way.
2. Why did you become a contact tracer, and why did you leave?
When Covid-19 hit, it closed down all the projects on which I’d been working. My theatrical production company had been developing shows that had scheduled upcoming readings or productions. We canceled or postponed those shows until it is safe to return to the theatre, which won’t be anytime soon. My job as a professional Union background actor also came to a screeching halt. All the productions shut down in New York for safety. So, I needed a job. I saw ads for contact tracers and thought I would have what it takes emotionally and because of my computer and people skills.
I since left the job initially due to illness. I was starting to get migraines and had to take care of my health first. I got tested for COVID-19 and the anti-bodies, and both came out negative. Then, while taking some sick days off, I learned that they were laying off my team members for a hopeful reason – the number of cases in Massachusetts had gone down significantly, so they didn’t need as many contact tracers. If the need arises for them to re- hire people, I would be willing to go back again. Although it was hard, it was very meaningful work.
3. What are the qualities you must have to become a contact tracer?
Qualities for the job first and foremost include compassion and empathy. We were often the first people to tell someone that they had been exposed to someone testing positive, or, when taking inbound calls, that they tested positive for COVID-19. It’s scary to know that you could get ill from a disease with no known cure or vaccine yet. We also tried to be calming to let them know that most cases were mild or moderate, and most wouldn’t require hospitalization. When I first started, I thought it was more important to stick to the script. But with more experience, I learned that it was necessary to let the contact talk and tell you what they were experiencing, and eventually, you would get all the answers you needed while helping them get the support they needed. Everything was confidential, so it was necessary to honor that element of the job. It also required good computer skills as all the information acquired went into a database with very specific requirements.
4. How has your theatre experience contributed to your ability as a contact tracer?
My background in theatre and the arts was very helpful. The collaborative nature of theatre is similar to the teamwork required to train, share, and improve the process as we went along on the tracing team. When co-creating and producing the post-9/11 show, SAME DIFFERENCE, we interviewed dozens of people and learned from professional journalists that it was necessary to listen, without any judgment, to obtain the most honest stories, even if it went against your personal beliefs. This experience reinforced the basic skills I learned in Hal Peller’s improv class of “yes, and…” that whatever the other person says is their truth, and you accept it and continue. I also tried to bring humor to the team meetings since there were many stressful days of learning new protocols or hearing sad stories.
When the team-building question asked (not unlike theatre games), “what did you want to be when you grew up,” I said, I wanted to be a contact tracer. Maybe not everybody laughed, but my supervisor did, so that was like a mini-standing ovation. Part of the hiring process required a video interview, so perhaps the somewhat narcissistic (yet sensitive) nature of being an actor made me comfortable enough to talk on camera. Many of my other team members had been educators or medical professionals. I once played a nurse on All My Children, so maybe subliminally, it prepared me to serve others humbly. As a producer, asking people to invest in or to attend your shows required fearlessness and firm conviction in your projects. Having that background helped me to have confidence when calling or answering calls from potential patients.
And finally, the computer skills I learned from working at the Shubert Organization (the very first PC I ever touched); at Actors Theatre of Louisville (PC and Apple – plus, there was a whole room dedicated to the mainframe – wait, am I showing my age?) plus all the Word, Excel and Database classes we learned while working at HBO enabled me to pick up the Salesforce and Microsoft Teams apps used for the tracing job quite quickly.
5. Do you see the theatre community playing an active role in bringing awareness and the importance of tracing? If so, how?
It would be great if the entertainment community could publicize tracing and social distancing on their social media pages and promote via public service announcements and ads that an essential step to stopping the spread of COVID-19 is contact tracing. In the same way that they publicize the Census and let people know that it’s legitimate and important, people can educate the public that they should share the necessary info with tracers, which may call them.
Participating and stopping the spread helps not only the patients but also the essential health care providers by expanding bed capacity in hospitals and leaving enough resources for them to do their jobs effectively. Eleanor Roosevelt (who, by the way, is a character in the musical comedy I co-produced, Hell’s Belles about infamous women in Hell) said, “Success must include two things: the development of an individual to his utmost potentiality and a contribution of some kind to one’s world.” I feel it would be a small but important contribution to inform and empower others to promote behavior that will improve all our health and speed up healing so that we can get back to work as entertainers.
For more information on contact tracing, click here.
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