clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Chicago moves to create 600-strong army of contact tracers to fight coronavirus

Community groups designated by the city will be charged with recruiting, training, hiring and supporting the contact tracers, supervisors and referral coordinators who will have the capacity to trace 4,500 new contacts each day.

A technician processes nasopharyngeal swab samples positive for COVID-19 at Simple Laboratories in Harwood Heights in April 2020.
Caryl Agsalud processes nasopharyngeal swab samples positive for COVID-19 at Simple Laboratories in Harwood Heights.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she expects a “whole new class of jobs that didn’t exist before” to be created by the need to reassure people it’s safe to gather in public again.

On Tuesday, the mayor took a giant step toward creating 600 of those new jobs in impoverished black and Hispanic neighborhoods that have also borne the brunt of the coronavirus.

The Lightfoot administration released a $56 million request-for-proposals from organizations interested in coordinating “contact tracing and resource referral efforts” across Chicago.

The RFP requires the lead agency to “sub-grant 85 percent of contract tracing funding to at least 30 neighborhood-based organizations located within or primarily-serving residents of communities of economic hardship” that have also been most heavily impacted by coronavirus cases and deaths.

The 30 neighborhood groups designated by the city will recruit, train, hire and support an army of 600 contact tracers, supervisors and referral coordinators with capacity to trace 4,500 new contacts each day, according to City Hall.

The first tracers would hit the phones by Aug. 1, joined by a second batch on Sept. 15. They would join the roughly 40 contact tracers already assembled by the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Plans call for contact tracers to be paid $20 an hour plus health benefits. Supervisors will get an hourly wage of $24. The initial jobs will last for 18 months. But that’s only the start, the mayor said.

“This isn’t about just a short-term project. We want this to be a career path for individuals to get the training and then see that there are other opportunities for them in health care,” Lightfoot said.

Contact tracing is the painstaking process of identifying and tracking down everyone who has come in “close, prolonged contact” with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

Contacts identified are provided with specific public health guidance. Tracers and public health officials stay in regular contact with those exposed individuals — normally using text messages and emails — to track the “progression of any symptoms.”

A technician handles a blood sample to test for COVID-19 at a Harwood Heights facility on April 22.
A technician handles a blood sample to test for COVID-19 at a Harwood Heights facility in April.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

The $56 million needed to support Chicago’s new contact tracing army is part of the relief funding from the Centers for Disease Control and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Lightfoot portrayed the community-based contact-tracing operation as a “win-win.” It will help stop the coronavirus from spreading in Chicago’s “most impacted communities.” And it will address some of the “underlying health inequities these same communities have faced for generations,” the mayor said.

“Obviously we’re focusing on areas where people are struggling with employment. That’s one of the best things about this. But the other piece is, from these same areas we see significant health care disparities, in part, because they lack access to health care,” Lightfoot said.

“If we train up a legion of people from these same communities, their neighbors will know that they do this work. their family members will know that they do this work. And we hope that one of the residual benefits is, we de-mystify the health care system so that people understand that they can be engaged with the health care system on a preventive basis and not just when they’re urgently ill and showing up at a hospital.”

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks during a May 18, 2020 press conference to announce a new coronavirus drive-thru testing site at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy, 2231 N. Central Ave., organized by the CORE disaster relief organization started by actor Sean Penn.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks last week during a press conference to announce a new coronavirus drive-thru testing site at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy, 2231 N. Central Ave. Mayor Lori Lightfoot (left) also attended the event.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Though most of the jobs will last about 18 months, workers will build skills that can lead them to long career in public health, city Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said at Tuesday’s news conference.

The new army will be supported by an “Earn-and-Learn” program to help them “pursue higher education and credentialing” needed to nail down “stable, middle-income jobs” that will last “beyond the height of the pandemic,” according to City Hall.

Last month, Arwady noted contact tracing is already part of the “case investigation” that occurs whenever someone in a long-term care facility or a homeless shelter tests positive for the coronavirus.

But Arwady argued then that the broader version of contract tracing required to slowly and safely re-open the Chicago economy could involve a “community health worker model” like the one unveiled Tuesday.

Health Department epidemiologists could be paired with “folks from communities” that have borne the brunt of the coronavirus in “parts of the city where more people have the kinds of jobs that might take longer to come back,” the commissioner said then.

At Tuesday’s news conference, Arwady stressed that it doesn’t matter where someone who tests positive for the coronavirus lives in Chicago. They’ll get the “same speed and the same attention in terms of the case investigation and contact tracing,” she said.

“But, we want to work with the community-based organizations that are in these areas of higher economic hardship because that is where there’s an opportunity to also grow in an economic way and in a way that lets us build up a capacity for community health work that, we hope, will long extend beyond the COVID response,” the commissioner said.