CHICAGO — State officials announced the start of what is billed as a massive “contact tracing” operation Monday to stop the spread of coronavirus, saying pilot programs will launch first in Lake County and downstate’s St. Clair County.
But all counties will be involved as Gov. JB Pritzker works to ramp up a program intended to contact and isolate every person known to be in recent contact with someone who has a newly confirmed case of coronavirus.
“When someone tests positive for COVID-19, a contact tracer will interview them to learn about their recent contacts with family, friends, coworkers, commuters, classmates and others,” the governor said during his afternoon coronavirus media briefing.
“And if their exposure to any of those people in the last 48 hours was significant, … those individuals will be notified and told only that they had been exposed to someone who has the virus.”
Those people will be given information, help and told to self-isolate.
Dr. Wayne Duffus, who is leading the state’s contact tracing program, said the effort will include multiple layers of contact for people who have potentially been exposed.
The first step is sending a text message to a person to let them know someone they were in contact with has tested positive for COVID-19. If the person does not respond, a tracer will call them up to three times. If those calls go unanswered, only then will a tracer try to find them in person as a last resort, Duffus said.
Once reached, the person will be told to self-isolate to stop them from spreading a virus they might not realize they already have.
“For contact tracing to be successful, we must and will have broad engagement with the residents of Illinois so you can understand and expect what we ask of you” during the crisis, Duffus said.
Coordinators will work with cases and contacts to help them with needs while they isolate, inclduing helping them access alternate housing, food banks, medical monitoring and mental health services.
Officials have emphasized health departments routinely do contact tracing, and the Chicago and state departments were working on contact tracing at the beginning of the pandemic. Their efforts were overwhelmed, though, due to the quick spread of the virus.
Now, local health departments around the state will hire and train more contact tracers so they can start better tracking the spread of COVID-19.
“Local health departments have been working in contact tracing from the beginning, that they do have resources … but this has been overextended because of the volume of cases and it’s hard for them to keep up, not just in Illinois but nationwide,” Duffus said. “This program is dedicated to scaling up rapidly.”
Contact tracing is useful because it can help officials stop the virus from spreading, ultimately reducing the number of people who are infected, Pritzker said.
Officials have said they will potentially need thousands of contact tracers to do the work, which will be aided by data and an expected mobile app.
The state said all hires will be made by local health departments, not through the Illinois Department of Public Health. Salaries will be determined by the local health departments.
People interested in becoming a contact tracer should contact the Illinois Department of Public Health, which will deliver names and resumes to local health departments. That interest form can be found on the IDPH website at dph.illinois.gov/COVID19.
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 and Prevention. Even people who show 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 are:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Chills and shaking with chills
- Muscle pain
- 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, seek immediate medical attention, according to the CDC.
How To Protect Yourself
Here’s what you can 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, such as 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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