As Illinois enters its second full month under stay-at-home restrictions, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state health leaders are pushing to create an “army” of contact tracers who can more rapidly inform those who have been in close proximity with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19.
The governor on Friday announced a massive statewide contact tracing operation, which he called a “critical tool” in helping to reduce the coronavirus spread rate, speed up diagnoses and halt outbreaks before they happen.
“This is an unprecedented public health challenge,” he said, “so we need an unprecedented solution to meet the moment.”
The announcement came on a day when Illinois set yet another record with 3,137 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the state’s total up to 56,055. Friday’s numbers come as Illinois has averaged more than 12,000 tests per day over the past week, it’s highest total since the pandemic began.
There were also 105 new deaths reported statewide, upping Illinois’ total to 2,457.
Contact tracing is the act of informing people when they’ve come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. But the governor said this needs to be done at levels never before seen not only in Illinois but worldwide.
The operation will begin with a slow rollout, but Pritzker said that at its peak, there could be about 30 workers per 100,000 Illinois residents – a total of more than 3,800. The governor estimated the cost could reach $80 million.
On Friday, Pritzker introduced Dr. Wayne Duffus, a former epidemic service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who will serve as the acting head epidemiologist for the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Duffus explained that these contact tracing workers do not need to be hired all at once, but they will be added continuously over time with the ability to “surge” as the pandemic continues.
The state has already identified specific groups that can help ramp up these efforts, including undergrad and graduate students, volunteers, retired health professionals, local health officials, and community health workers, as well as new hires.
The core personnel for contact tracing will be divided into three cadres: case investigators who reach out to those who test positive; contact tracers who call those who’ve been in close contact with a confirmed diagnosed case; and resource coordinators who provide those in isolation or quarantine with relevant information about things like food, medication and alternate housing.
Duffus said this work can be done by anyone who is "bright, interested and (has) a charming personality,” though training is necessary. He expects the operation to be launched by the end of May.
“It is how we break transmission,” he said, “and it’s how we make sure we don’t have a large outbreak ongoing.”
Friday also marked the first day of the governor’s extended stay-at-home order, which is eases some restrictions while strengths others.
Under the new order, all residents age 2 or older who can wear a face covering or mask must do so when in a public place where they can’t maintain a 6-foot social distance.
Even so, Illinois state parks will begin to reopen, while fishing and boating will be allowed for groups no larger than two. Golf courses will also be allowed to operate as long as social distancing requirements are met.
But just because those activities are no longer banned statewide, it doesn’t mean Chicagoans can expect to hit the links just yet.
Golfing, fishing and boating are not yet permitted in Chicago, though people will be allowed to access their boats for maintenance. Additionally, the lakefront, its adjacent trails, green spaces and park facilities will remain closed through May.
The extended order has also faced multiple legal challenges from some who want the state to reopen and believe Pritzker has exceeded his legal authority “in ordering isolation or quarantine of citizens or closures of businesses.”
The governor on Friday did suggest that if a local region in Illinois had passed its peak and had sufficient hospital space available, it could reopen before the stay-at-home order expires at the end of May.
“If it’s heading down the other side of this slide, that even the national plan proposed that that is for 14 days on a downslide of those numbers, then absolutely,” he said. “Listen, I want as much as everybody else does for everybody to get back to work and for us to move toward normalcy.”
Pritzker made more news moments after his daily briefing ended, issuing a joint statement with Mayor Lori Lightfoot announcing that because the “curve is flattening,” operations at the McCormick Place alternate care facility will begin winding down as local hospitals and health care systems continue to operate with capacity.
“While this marks a critical moment and a large step forward in our collective fight against COVID-19,” the statement read, “we must stay the course until data shows further progress in a reduction of new cases and as widespread testing comes online.”
Coronavirus Prevention Tips and Resources
Officials advise taking preventive measures to slow the spread of the virus, including:
—Washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water
—Using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol
—Sneezing or coughing into a tissue and then disposing of the tissue
—Limiting contact with people regardless of how you feel
—Staying home when you are sick
Symptoms of COVID-19 include, but are not limited to:
—New onset of fever, cough, shortness of breath
—Congestion in the nasal sinuses or lungs
—Sore throat, body aches or unusual fatigue
If you think you have COVID-19:
Call you doctor before showing up at their office. If you have a medical emergency and need to call 911, tell the operator that you think you have COVID-19. If possible, wear a mask before medical help arrives or presenting at a doctor’s office. More advice for those who think they have COVID-19.
—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
—Illinois’ COVID-19 website
—Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) website
—IDPH COVID-19 hotline: 800-889-3931
—IPDH COVID-19 email link
—City of Chicago COVID-19 website
—City of Chicago COVID-19 hotline: 312-746-4835
—City of Chicago COVID-19 email link