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Contact tracers to expand outreach in Latino communities

By following up with people who test positive for the coronavirus, tracking the development of their cases and asking them to remember their recent interactions, experts say lives can be saved

Miguel Blancarte Jr., a Little Village resident and the site director at Community Organized Relief Effort’s (CORE) COVID-19 testing facility at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village, poses for a portrait at the facility Friday afternoon, Sept. 4, 2020. The site offers free COVID-19 tests. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Miguel Blancarte Jr., a Little Village resident and the site director at Community Organized Relief Effort’s (CORE) COVID-19 testing facility at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village, poses for a portrait at the facility Friday afternoon, Sept. 4, 2020. The site offers free COVID-19 tests.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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Yes, there’s no vaccine to prevent COVID-19 just yet. But medical experts still are offering a simple way to stop the spread of the virus that continues to disproportionately impact the Latino community:

If you get the virus, communicate with others.

“If a person tests positive for COVID-19, they should be as open as possible about it; you may be ashamed to admit it, but at the same time, it will help save lives,” said Miguel Blancarte Jr., site manager of Saucedo Academy’s COVID-19 testing site and regional director of community engagement and health equity for the non-profit organization CORE.

The way lives can be saved now is through contact tracing, which consists of following up on people who test positive for the coronavirus, tracking the development of their cases and asking those people to remember with whom they had recent interactions. “This means people with whom the index patient was in close contact (within 6 feet) for more than 15 minutes, starting 48 hours before illness onset,” according to standard contact tracing guidelines.

Persons who test positive should inform everyone with whom they had close contact and also reach out to a medical professional or community organization that can connect them to a contact tracer. Even if they don’t have symptoms of COVID-19, they could still spread the virus to others.

A person conducts his own COVID-19 mouth swab test at Community Organized Relief Effort’s (CORE) COVID-19 testing facility at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village last week.
A person conducts his own COVID-19 mouth swab test at Community Organized Relief Effort’s (CORE) COVID-19 testing facility at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village Friday afternoon, Sept. 4, 2020. The site offers free COVID-19 tests.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The tracer then can arrange testing for people and can provide supportive services if they, too, test positive, including help with health care, housing and even financial issues that might arise from infected or sick people having to take time off work.

People will not be asked for their social security number or immigration status. “We do not share [your] information with the federal government or with anywhere outside of the public health system . . . but know that the people on the other end of the line will increasingly be from your communities, from your trusted healthcare [providers],” city Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Monday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Arwady announced a list of participating Latino community-based organizations who will assist with contact tracing. That list includes Instituto del Progreso Latino, Central States SER, The Resurrection Project, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council.

Contact tracing is vital when at the state and local level the Latino community that has, to date, the highest number of COVID-19 cases.

Chicago and state officials are overseeing the disbursement of taxpayer money to step up tracing efforts, but they have only made 100 job offers out of the 450 tracer positions they said the city would hire by mid-September.

The Illinois Department of Public Health provided nearly $300 million in grants to health departments to handle the recruitment and training of tracers with strong interpersonal and communication skills.

The Chicago Department of Public Health recently announced a $56 million grant to the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, which will lead the contact tracing effort citywide.

An outreach plan specifically for the Latino community involving multiple community groups is still being devised, Arwady said.

This tracing plan, which will last for two years, will serve as a platform and model not “only for COVID-19,” she said. “There will be partnerships with City Colleges of Chicago to make sure there is a learning component and contact tracers in this program will have the ability to gain additional skills to become community health workers or provide support in clinics.”

The idea is to work with 31 community organizations that serve high-risk communities; those organizations will “generate much-needed jobs” by hiring and training tracers from the hardest-hit neighborhoods, Lightfoot said.

Arwady said she “acknowledges the need” to hire Spanish-speaking contact tracers and “CDPH has acquired Spanish-speakers. Five of our team leads, for example, are fully bilingual.”

The online application is available in Spanish, Polish, and Mandarin. Contact tracers and supervisors will earn $20 and $24 an hour, respectively.

CDPH is also allocating $14 million to external healthcare facilities to roll out their own contact tracing programs.

Esperanza Health Centers, one of the community clinics that serves Chicago’s Latino and mostly Mexican neighborhoods, such as Little Village, Brighton Park, Pilsen and Marquette Park, has taken steps to stay in contact with COVID-19 patients, educate them, and inform them about the virus.

Ted Hufstader, director of quality and transformation of practice for Esperanza, said that his organization is among those that has applied to be part of the city’s contract tracing and case investigation efforts.

“We know the Zip codes, we are in the communities; we have really invested in the response. When we start, we can make a big impact as community partners. And we want (the tracers) to be people from the community, offer them training, and see this as career development for people in the communities we serve,” he added.