Chicago awards $56M contact tracing contract amid privatization complaints

From two dozen applicants, Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership was picked to marshal a 600-strong army of tracers drawn from Black and Hispanic neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of the coronavirus.

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Local officials, community organizers and residents attend a press conference outside the James R. Thompson Center on June 30, 2020. They called on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to stop Chicago Department of Public Health from outsourcing COVID-19 contact tracers and testers to private entities.

Local officials, community organizers and residents hold a press conference outside Thompson Center on Tuesday, calling on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to stop the Chicago Department of Public Health from outsourcing COVID-19 contact tracer and testing jobs to private entities.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A partnership that includes Sinai Urban Health Institute and two prominent universities was chosen Tuesday to spearhead Chicago’s $56 million contact tracing program amid complaints about “privatization.”

A request for proposals that attracted two dozen applicants culminated in the award to Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership to marshal a 600-strong army of tracers drawn from Black and Hispanic neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of the coronavirus.

It’s a consortium with Sinai Urban Health Institute that includes the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, NORC at the University of Chicago and Malcolm X College.

The $56 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health will support the creation of the COVID Contact Tracing Corps and the COVID Resource Coordination Hub.

The RFP requires the partnership to “sub-grant” 85 percent of the $56 million to 30 neighborhood-based organizations located “within or primarily serving” residents of communities of economic hardship that also have been most heavily affected by coronavirus cases and deaths.

The neighborhood groups will be chosen after a second round of competitive bidding to recruit, train, hire and support an army of 600 tracers with the capacity to trace 4,500 new contacts each day.

“COVID-19’s outrageously disproportionate impact on Chicago’s most vulnerable communities has demanded that we as a city step up and take swift action to support our fellow residents in need,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot was quoted as saying in a news release.

“This exciting tracing initiative will not only significantly bolster our effort to stay ahead of this terrible disease, it will also create new jobs and opportunities for individuals to join in the fight against COVID 19, as well as develop invaluable skills for their own future career in public health and patient care.”

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said a “robust and comprehensive” contact tracing program is pivotal to “containing the spread of COVID-19 and driving down the number of new cases.”

“We insisted that this program not only focus on communities most impacted by the virus, but that the partnership and its sub-delegates hire from these neighborhoods to build the contact tracing corps,” Arwady was quoted as saying.

Group: City should rebuild public health infrastructure

Matt Brandon, former secretary-treasurer of SEIU Local 73 and now president of Communities Organized to Win, strongly disagreed. Brandon argued the city’s decision to “privatize” contact tracing would lead to lower-paid, part-time jobs.

“We know what happens when private contractors get money. They cut the salaries down. And they make most of the work part-time. We don’t want that to happen,” Brandon said before joining a coalition of groups urging Gov. J.B. Pritzker to halt “illegal outsourcing,” as they called it.

“This will be the first time in the United States that contact tracers are not headed by the state or municipal department of public health. It’s a violation of state law, for one thing. And we don’t think a private contractor has the same interest as our public health department. We also believe this is an opportunity for the city to begin to rebuild all of the infrastructure of public health that’s been taken out of our communities over the years.”

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) doesn’t buy the mayor’s promise to hire local residents as contact tracers. Nor does she believe area residents will trust the army assembled by the partnership.

“Why not give it to community organizations that we trust? Why is there always a middleman? The middleman has gotten us bad contractors and people not working. That’s what the middleman has gotten us,” Taylor said.

“Do you think I’m gonna tell some stranger that I don’t know, who’s not from my community? That’s the equivalent of going to a clinic. Do you think I’m gonna tell a stranger my sexual history? Do you think I’m gonna tell `em who I’ve been around, especially when I’m around somebody I’m not supposed to? I’m just tired of us giving our money away to folks . . . who don’t necessarily view the community organizations like they’re supposed to. They don’t do any of the stuff that the community would do.”

Ald.: More tracers needed

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said Chicago needs “at least 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents.”

“We have 2.7 million residents. We should be having at least 810 contact tracers. The administration has only allocated funding for 450 of them. So we’re short at least 360 tracers. That goes back to the issue of funding and privatization. If we continue to give resources to private companies, that’s less money for actual policies,” the alderman said.

Health Department spokesman Andrew Buchanan said the city will have the 810 tracers it needs when the new hires are added to 200 tracers already on staff.

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 then stay in contact with those exposed individuals, normally using text messages and emails to track the “progression of any symptoms.”

The city’s plan calls for tracers to be paid $20 an hour, plus health benefits. Supervisors will get an hourly wage of $24.

The new tracers 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.

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