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Illinois looks to ramp up contact tracing of coronavirus patients as state’s COVID-19 curve appears to bend

Pritzker on Wednesday said he’s been in touch with officials in Massachusetts who announced an initiative earlier this month to deploy 1,000 people to conduct contact tracing in that state.

A woman in the Loop wears a face mask Thursday amid growing fear about the coronavirus. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Both Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday that state and city officials are working to bolster the ability to trace the contacts made by thousands of coronavirus patients, an onerous process that will likely require the addition of new health care workers to help track transmissions of COVID-19.

Gov J.B. Pritzker has identified contact tracing as one of the measures necessary to ease the stringent statewide social restrictions, along with expanding diagnostic testing and identifying a treatment for the virus.

During Wednesday’s press briefing, Pritzker said he’s been in touch with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and representatives from the Boston-based nonprofit Partners in Health, who announced a joint initiative earlier this month to deploy 1,000 people to conduct contact tracing in that state.

“We’re looking at putting that together for the state of Illinois,” Pritzker said.

Earlier Wednesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters that the city is “developing technology and community outreach” to trace the contacts of COVID-19 patients. Chicago Department of Public Health Director Allison Arwady further noted that officials are being retrained and additional staff has been hired to handle contact tracing,

“Now, we’re really looking beyond the department. We’ve done some temporary hiring, we’ve worked with a lot of partners, we’ve been getting volunteer help. But I do think we’ll be looking even more aggressively, and in a long-term way, about what this is going to look like,” said Arwady, adding that more focus is now being placed on measures to contain the virus alongside efforts aimed at mitigating the spread, like social distancing.

After identifying a confirmed case, a patient’s contacts should be alerted and in some cases isolated or quarantined, according to the World Health Organization. Contacts should then be monitored for symptoms and tested for signs of infection.

The need for widespread contact tracing is underpinned by an estimate included in a recent report from the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, which stated that a single person can infect an average of two to three others. That number, however, can be much larger, as evidenced in a report earlier this month from the Centers for Disease Control that detailed a single “super-spreader” in Chicago who passed COVID-19 onto 15 others, killing three.

Thorough contact tracing will ultimately pay off, according to the researchers at Johns Hopkins, who noted that the process will help “save lives, reduce COVID-19’s burden on our healthcare system, ease strict social distancing measures, and confidently make progress toward returning to work and school.”

Still, the task of tracing the contacts of nearly 25,000 known cases is daunting and will require a large cadre of dedicated health care workers. Spokespeople for the Illinois, Chicago and Cook County public health departments didn’t immediately respond to questions about how many workers are tracing the contacts of COVID-19 patients.

But the onus shouldn’t fall only on the nation’s cities, counties and states, experts say. A report earlier this month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a San Francisco-based health care nonprofit, calls for a coordinated, nationwide effort led by the federal government.

According to the Johns Hopkins report, federal funding for public health preparedness has been slashed by 28% over the past 15 years. Those researchers hold that Congress must appropriate $3.6 billion in emergency funding to state and territorial health departments to employ 100,000 contact tracers across the country.

Last week, CDC Director Robert Redfield told NPR that contact tracing “is going to be critical” for responding to the deadly virus and preventing new outbreaks. Redfield noted that “a substantial expansion of public health field workers” is needed to carry out that work and suggested that the federal government will likely need to help.

”We have over 600 people in the field right now from CDC in all the states trying to help with this response, but we are going to have to substantially amplify that,” he said.