When COVID-19 contact tracers in Baltimore City start their jobs, Aimee Hoffman is one of the first people they see. The Catholic Charities therapist is part of their orientation to the demanding work, offering advice about stress, anxiety, bereavement and coping through a challenging time, while reminding them that she can help.

As the city began hiring a corps of more than 300 people to help track and limit the pandemic’s spread, they offered benefits that include career advice, financial counseling, legal services, and behavioral health options. The holistic set of supports is aimed at helping workers overcome any barriers to finding stable and permanent employment when the pandemic slows and the temporary positions end.

Catholic Charities’ contract with the city was not prescriptive. The agency’s Villa Maria Community Resources Behavioral Health Clinic in Fallstaff agreed to offer a range of services but had flexibility in how to approach the work.

“I let the program evolve and saw where the areas of interest were,” said Hoffman, a senior clinician who has been with Catholic Charities since 2014 and was tapped to lead the effort. “It can be such a stressful position. They’re the ones contacting people who are COVID positive, or talking to people who have been in close proximity and now have to quarantine. They will get a lot of pushback … and some of the frustration that those people are feeling.”

Good advice for work and home

The initial orientation session allowed her to offer tips on managing stress and anxiety, explain the supports available through their contracts, and dispel myths and stigmas related to seeking counseling. The employees choose whether and how to participate in the program, with offerings ranging from occasional lunch-and-learn sessions to individual therapy.

“Anything that I’m offering them as support is to enhance their ability to do the job. It’s self-care so they can be more available and focused. And it’s all very applicable to their personal lives as well,” she said.

Among the lessons that have resonated with this workforce are how to work through the grieving process – their own, or that of others.

“Chances are good that they’ve called someone who is grieving [a loved one] who passed away due to COVID,” Hoffman said. “We’re giving them the tools for how to be supportive, how to sound and be the empathic, caring person that they want to be.”

There has been a high demand for individual services, in part because the contract removes many of the barriers that can stop people from seeking counseling – insurance, doctor referrals and co-pays are not necessary. In addition, individuals know what to expect because they have already seen and heard from Hoffman at their orientations, and there is almost no wait to start services.

“The removal of barriers to accessing mental health services in general is just so valuable,” she said.

Planting a seed

A wide variety of people have been hired into the contact tracing positions. Some see it as a stepping stone in their careers. Others found themselves out of work and just needed a job. Hoffman said the concerns they raise are just as varied.

“The common themes are probably anxiety, stress and family issues,” she said, adding that many are also considering how to plan for the future while in a short-term employment contract.

Hoffman is hopeful that even those who choose not to participate in counseling services through the grant will benefit from the advice she offers.

“If they’re still hesitant, perhaps I’ve planted a seed where later on they may be more inclined to get those services for themselves, and to know it’s OK,” she said.