Factories lead as largest source of COVID-19 outbreaks in Illinois, new data shows

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced new contact tracing data compiled across Illinois. Community events, churches and colleges also rank high in a measure of outbreaks since July.

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Tootsie Roll’s plant at 7401 S. Cicero Ave., was the center of a COVID-19 outbreak last spring. The state said Friday that factories were the leading source of outbreaks in Illinois.

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There have been at least 52 COVID-19 outbreaks at factories and manufacturers in Illinois since July 1, making those settings the leading source for multiple infections from a single location, data released Friday show.

The data, announced by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, was compiled using reports from around 3,300 contact tracers across the state. These workers and volunteers reach out to people who recently tested positive with the virus and conduct interviews to identify where infections may have taken place and others who may have been exposed. In recent months, contact tracers reached and interviewed only about 54 percent of those testing positive, according to the state’s reporting.

Other leading sources of outbreaks since the state’s pandemic “reopening” July 1 were community events (34), churches (31), colleges (31) and correctional facilities (27). The state data comes with a caveat that “many factors may result in underreporting of outbreaks.” Among them, contact tracers can’t reach infected individuals and not everyone is getting tested.

Other sources of outbreaks, which Pritzker defined Friday as five or more confirmed virus cases, include group homes, schools, workplaces, bars and restaurants. The data did not include the name of any specific location that had an outbreak.

Previously, state officials have defined outbreaks as two or more cases. A state health department spokeswoman didn’t respond to a question clarifying the state’s criteria.

Last month, the governor called restaurants and bars “super spreader” locations as he moved to restrict indoor service. Absent outbreak data singling out bars and restaurants, Pritzker on Friday pointed to a separate set of statistics collected from contact tracing that lists exposures — essentially any place an infected person visited two weeks prior to testing positive — to make his argument that bars and restaurants are indeed sources of virus spread.

Presenting a chart showing bars and restaurants were among the most frequently visited locations by COVID-19 patients, Pritzker said that limiting indoor dining and drinking is one of the best ways he sees to limit the spread.

“The only way really that science has told us that we can limit the number of cases or the epidemiological spread of the disease is by having less interaction, and less interaction means cutting off people’s ability to interact in various places,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker also referenced research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found in a study adults who tested positive for the virus were twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than those who tested negative.

The data on potential places of exposure, which was compiled from virus cases over the past 30 days, also showed a large number of visits by those testing positive to schools, workplaces (other than offices), hospitals or medical clinics and a catch-all “other” category that included warehouses, funeral homes and hair salons, the state reported.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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