From the Columbus Dispatch, October 28, 2020

Danae King

The Columbus Dispatch

Dominican sister uses faith to help others as COVID contact tracer

Sister Ellen Coates, who is in formation to become a Dominican Sister of Peace, works as a contact tracer at Ohio State University.
Sister Ellen Coates, who is in formation to become a Dominican Sister of Peace, works as a contact tracer at Ohio State University.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Ellen Coates has found a way to combine her faith and public health experience to help people.

Coates is a contact tracer at Ohio State University who brings a unique spin to the work: She uses her Catholic faith and involvement with the Dominican Sisters of Peace to comfort those affected by the virus.

And by doing so, the sister feels like she is fulfilling part of the congregation’s mission to work on a problem of the time.

“If I can be patient with someone who’s upset or connect them with resources that help or just take the time to listen, that can be as important a part of my ministry as finding who might have been exposed,” Coates said.

The 57-year-old is a novice in the Dominican Sisters of Peace, which is a step toward becoming a sister permanently. Before joining the congregation, she worked in public health for 20 years, helping to eradicate polio and other childhood illnesses around the world. Coates said she saw it as a way to serve God until she felt the call in 2013 to serve God in a more personal way by starting the process to become a religious sister.

“That awareness of God enhances everything I do,” and has for decades, she said.

Her faith has been a strength in her work as a leader of a team of contact tracers at Ohio State, said her boss, Kelly Muzyczka.

“Ellen’s public health background paired with her faith makes her great at explaining the why — why this needs to be done both from a public health perspective and from a good citizen perspective,” said Muzyczka, program manager of OSU’s case investigation and contact tracing team.

As part of her role, Coates helps guide and advise the approximately 50 contact tracers at the university.

Contact tracers work with patients who test positive for COVID-19 to determine who they’ve had close contact with while infectious. Then, the contact tracer must reach out those people and tell them they might have been exposed and recommend they isolate for two weeks.

Coates, originally from Winchester, Massachusetts, often helps contact tracers with difficult calls, in which people might be distraught about having been in contact with someone with the virus and are concerned about their ability to isolate.

Though she never discusses faith or God directly, Coates hopes her presence and understanding will show people the love of Jesus.

She said she can’t imagine what college students who test positive for coronavirus are going through but tries to remember that they’re frustrated, upset and already dealing with the fact that their college experience isn’t what they’d hoped it would be due to the pandemic.

“They’re trying to navigate a whole new world when as college students they’re already navigating a whole new world,” Coates said.

Though she wishes the pandemic wasn’t going on, Coates said she is happy to help people through it, even if just in a small way.

Muzyczka said she’s seen Coates affect people’s lives and says the understanding with which Coates approaches difficult situations is partially what “sets her apart.”

“The level-headedness in which she is working and the compassion is definitely apparent when she is talking to students or parents,” Muzyczka said. “She’s so good at making them feel calmer about everything and de-escalating any sort of situation in a very kind of peaceful, kind of calming way, in a very non-abrasive approach.”

Coates tries to understand how the person is feeling before solving a problem, and Muzyczka said she thinks Coates’ faith adds to her patience and compassion.

Coates, who lives in the Dominican Sisters of Peace House of Welcome in Berwick, started at Ohio State on Sept. 1.

The Dominican Order of Preachers, of which the sisters are a part, was founded in 1216 by Saint Dominic and they consider their gift from God to be the ability to search for and preach truth as it affects the lives of people and the planet, according to the sisters’ website.

“What Ellen is doing is truly a manifestation of Dominic’s work,” said Dee Holleran, spokeswoman for the Dominican Sisters of Peace.

Sister Pat Dual, director of vocations with the Dominican Sisters of Peace, helps each woman find a ministry, usually a paying job, when they are going through the process to become a sister.

“All of our sisters in some way answer a need for God’s people at the time,” she said. “Is there a special significance (to Coates’ work)? Certainly … because this pandemic has changed how we live, every element of how we live.”

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