Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Germany's Contact Tracers Have Been Vital To The Country's COVID-19 Fight


Germany has had notable success in slowing the spread of the coronavirus. One reason for that is contact tracers - armies of tracers. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from the frontlines.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: While countries like China and South Korea use cellphone data and GPS to trace coronavirus infections Germany, prefers the old-fashioned way.


SCHMITZ: A phone rings at the public health authority in Pankow, a district in Berlin. And the operator gets right down to business.


SCHMITZ: "So you've had contact with someone who's tested positive," she says. She asks for the name, types it into her computer. And the name of the caller appears on her screen listed as someone they were about to call.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: COVID-19-positive, yeah. (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: "Did you spend more than 15 minutes at close contact with this person?" the operator asks. "OK, you went for a walk."


SCHMITZ: There are around 400 call centers like this around Germany, each of them filled with dozens of operators. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has prioritized tracking infection chains as the key to slowing the spread of COVID-19, and she aims for the country to have one tracer per 4,000 people. That's 20,000 tracers for Germany's population of 83 million. Dr. Uwe Peters, director of the Pankow District Health Authority, says when the pandemic hit, he scrambled to hire more tracers, quickly doubling his office's staff.

UWE PETERS: (Through interpreter) We've recruited staff from other district authorities, including social services. But we also have traffic wardens and librarians working for us. We've even recruited gardeners from Parks and Recreation.

SCHMITZ: Students and soldiers also helped out. While case numbers were on the rise in March, they had to quickly train them how to trace every infection in their district. It starts with a positive coronavirus test. The public health authority is the first to be informed about it. They then call the infected person and make a list of each person they've had contact with since they first had symptoms.

CLAUDIA KRUMMACHER: And, sometimes, it's a short list - like, only near close family. Sometimes, it's a really long list. And then, basically, you have to contact all the people on the list.

SCHMITZ: Tracer Claudia Krummacher says if anyone on the list had contact with the infected person for more than 15 minutes within 6 feet in distance, they're put under a state-mandated quarantine, monitored and, if necessary, tested. And if they're positive, the whole tracing cycle begins again. Krummacher helps manage the tracing call center in Pankow. She says at the height of the pandemic, it seemed like the work would never end. Her office would occasionally have a case of an infected school teacher, which meant they had to talk to the parents of hundreds of students, asking the same questions over and over. Krummacher's husband is also a frontline health worker. She says their three young children are the first to be dropped off at their daycare or schools and the last to be picked up. It's not easy on them, either.

KRUMACCHER: We cut back on our grown-up private time, so to speak, in the evenings. Of course, we are doing the work that's left over from the day. So there's not much of a social life right now.

SCHMITZ: They even work weekends because, Krummacher says, the coronavirus does not take weekends off, either.


SCHMITZ: Back at Krummacher's call center, the operator discovers the friend of an infected person has symptoms, too. She dispatches a medical team to do a test.


SCHMITZ: "You'll be under quarantine for 14 days, effective immediately," she says. "This means no visitors, no going to your mailbox, no going to the supermarket. Do you have someone who can pick up groceries for you?" she asks. "If not," she adds, "we provide that service, too."

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.