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$80 Million Contact Tracing ‘Army’ Planned As Illinois Sees Highest 1-Day Total Of New Confirmed Coronavirus Cases

Gov. JB Pritzker announced a plan to use contact tracing workers to help slow the spread.

A person wears a mask in the River North neighborhood on Monday, April 27, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — As Illinois saw its highest one-day total of newly confirmed coronavirus cases Friday with 3,137, Gov. JB Pritzker announced plans to create an $80 million “army” of contact tracers to help slow the virus’s spread.

Contact tracing means tracking down people who came into contact with a newly confirmed infected person so they can be tested and stay away from others.

“We will let people know before symptoms start that they could become ill,” the governor said. “This is our primary tool for identifying potential asymptomatic spreaders so they can self-isolate quickly and slow the spread of the virus quickly to their contacts, keeping more people COVID-free for longer.”

The spike in confirmed cases — it was the first time more than 3,000 cases were reported in one day — comes amid the state’s stepped-up testing. Nearly 15,000 people in Illinois were tested in the past day.

Meanwhile, another 105 people died from COVID-19 infections in the past day, said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health. There have now been 2,457 people lost to the virus.

Pritzker laid out how he envisions the contact tracing program to be built and operate. Illinois has studied Massachusetts’ efforts.

Thousands of workers will be needed, Pritzker said, noting Illinois would need 30 tracers per 100,000 residents. They will be assembled from undergrads, graduate students, volunteers and more. More information on how to get involved will be released in the coming weeks, with a goal of launching the program this month, he said.

Tracers will first reach out to an infected person through an app, email, text or call. In-person visits will be conducted if a tracer can’t reach the person.

Then, the COVID-positive patient will be interviewed to retrace his or her steps and determine who he or she has come into contact with.

Next, people who came into contact with the patient will be notified and given recommendations to get tested and to self-isolate.

People who do need to isolate will be provided with help getting groceries and doing tasks like laundry if needed, officials said.

The identities of people who are positive will be kept anonymous from their contacts, Pritzker said.

“Looking backward and pointing fingers doesn’t help anyone in this situation,” Pritzker said. “It’s about what we do next to keep each other as healthy and safe as possible. … Contact tracing has been done in every pandemic and major outbreak for many years.”

Dr. Wayne Duffus, a contact tracing expert with the Centers for Disease Control who spoke at Pritzker’s briefing, said the program will be a data-driven operation but with an emphasis on human resources.

The state will need widespread acceptance of contact tracing to make it work, Duffus said.

“Contact tracing is a skill that can be performed by anyone who’s bright, interested and has a charming personality,” he said. “They need to communicate with the public.

“There needs to be public awareness, understanding and acceptance of contact tracing.”

Contact tracing has been done during pandemics for years. Pritzker said it will slow the virus’s spread, which is why tracing — along with widespread testing and the development of treatments for COVID-19 — are needed to reopen the state safely.

Symptoms

Coronavirus can be deadly, but the vast majority of cases have been mild. Those most at risk from the virus are people who are elderly or who have underlying health conditions.

Symptoms of coronavirus can appear two to 14 days after a person has been exposed to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control. People with no symptoms may have the virus and spread it to others.

The virus spreads between people through coughing and sneezing, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The most common symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Chills and shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of taste and/or smell

People have also experienced body aches, nasal congestion and runny nose, according to Harvard Medical School.

If you or someone else has difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, become confused, cannot be roused or develop a bluish face or lips, get immediate medical attention, according to the CDC.

How To Protect Yourself

Here’s what you can actually do to prevent getting ill:

  • The CDC and other officials have said people should wash their hands often, including before, during and after eating; after using the bathroom; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
    The CDC has a guide here for how to properly wash your hands. Remember: Wash with soap and water, scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • If you can’t wash your hands with soap and water, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth, with unwashed hands.
  • Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces you touch frequently, like cellphones and light switches. Here are tips from the CDC.
  • Stay home when you’re sick and avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • If you have to sneeze or cough with a tissue, throw it out immediately after using it, according to the CDC.

What To Do If You Think You’re Sick

Even if you’re not showing symptoms, the Chicago Department of Public Health recommends people coming from high-risk countries (here’s a CDC list) self-quarantine for 14 days after returning home.

If you do have symptoms of coronavirus, contact your primary doctor or a health care facility before going in. Explain your symptoms and tell them if you’ve come into close contact with anyone with coronavirus or traveled to an area where COVID-19 is widespread (here’s a CDC list) within the last 14 days, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

From there, the experts will work with your local health department to determine what to do and if you need to be tested for coronavirus, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

And, of course, if you think you’re sick with coronavirus, don’t risk exposing other people to the virus. Anyone who feels unwell has been ordered to stay home or risk getting a $500 fine.

Those with questions and concerns about coronavirus can call the Illinois Department of Public Health at 800-889-3931.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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