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Pritzker promises millions to expand COVID-19 contact tracing in Illinois

Programs are key to stopping the coronavirus spread. The money will go to health departments across the state and nine community groups outside Cook County.

Access Family Health Center in Englewood started providing coronavirus testing in May.
Access Family Health Center in Englewood started providing coronavirus testing in May.
Sun-Times file

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the state will provide tens of millions of dollars in additional funding to public health departments and community organizations to help expand COVID-19 contact tracing across the state.

The pledge comes as the state announced the highest single-day total for coronavirus cases since early June.

Pritzker has been promising since April that he would step up efforts to track people potentially exposed to coronavirus patients. The practice, which involves tracking down people who were in contact with those who test positive, is regarded by health officials as key to limiting the virus’ spread and instrumental in saving lives.

“Contact tracing allows us to break the chain of transmission to prevent large outbreaks and, ultimately save lives,” Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement.

Pritzker is pledging more than $150 million to public health departments outside Cook County to help them bolster their contact tracing efforts. Another $60 million will be given to nine community organizations, also outside Cook, that will coordinate regional tracking efforts, state public health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.

The community organizations will contract with local groups to help reach “hard to reach” populations, including various ethnic groups, the homeless, migrant workers and others “leery of talking” with the government, Arnold said.

Included in the funding, Lake and DuPage Counties will each get $4.9 million for their tracing programs.

For Lake, that will help the county hire 100 case investigators and contact tracers, said Sara Zamor, associate director of prevention at the Lake County Health Department.

Lake County has had more than 10,000 reported cases of COVID-19, she said. The health department now has 60 people dedicated to contact tracing who have tried to reach out to every person infected, Zamor said.

Even as Lake County is seeing fewer new cases from its peak, “this money is coming at the right time,” Zamor said, citing concerns about the potential for an increase in cases.

In addition to Lake and DuPage, Evanston and Skokie health departments each will receive almost $818,000 apiece from the state for contact tracing, Arnold said. Stickney will receive almost $677,000, she said.

Cook County previously announced $41 million in funding from the state health department, which is funneled from federal dollars. The state provided $20 million to the City of Chicago’s $56 million contact tracing program.

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