Illinois Launches Coronavirus Contact Tracing Collaborative

Jonah Meadows

CHICAGO — As Illinois completes its first week averaging more than 20,000 daily completed coronavirus tests, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a statewide initiative to ramp up local health departments' ability to contact people who may have been exposed to the virus. The Illinois Contact Tracing Collaborative, Pritzker said, will provide assistance and infrastructure to county and municipal health departments.

Contact tracing is the second element of what has been dubbed a "test-and-trace" effort to limit the spread of the infectious respiratory disease. Once someone tests positive for the coronavirus, local public health officials are tasked with attempting to essentially retrace their steps and notify those who may have had close contact with the contagious person. Those people are encouraged to get a test and potentially self-quarantine.

Pritzker has included contact tracing benchmarks in his administration's "Restore Illinois" phased re-opening plan. In order to move from Phase 3, which Pritzker has said the state meets all the requirements for, to Phase 4, which includes open schools and in-person service at bars, restaurants and theaters, a region should be able to begin contact tracing and monitoring within 24 hours of a new diagnosis for more than 90 percent of cases.

Illinois' contact tracing infrastructure has been unable to keep up with the number of new cases after the first month of its COVID-19 outbreak, the governor said Monday.

"As cases reached a massive scale of spread in Illinois and nationally, our existing public health management infrastructure simply could not keep pace with the tens of thousands of contacts resulting from the thousands of positive cases that we've discovered each week because of our growing testing capability," Pritzker said.

"Only about 29 percent of our known cases are engaged in a tracing process," he said. "That's a number we want to push as high as possible, to the industry standard of over 60 percent."

It was not immediately clear if these statistics include the 24-hour deadline included in the reopening plan's requirements.

Pritzker said the joint effort with the state's 97 local health departments — starting with pilot programs in Lake County and St. Clair County — would have three key technological elements.

"Technology is really an important part of our Illinois Contact Tracing Collaborative, he said. "In fact, it's perhaps the most important part."

First, the state will implement a new project management tool to collect and store contact tracing data to improve its disease reporting system, Pritzker said. Second, he said it will also offer common "relationship management" software to all local health departments across the state, so they all operate on the same platform. Third, it will include a mobile app offered to every COVID-positive person and their contacts, giving them "easy access to the public resources to assist them while they're in isolation," according to the governor. His office has not specified if the app will collect any kind of data the location of its users.

"It will allow us to reach more people and to do so at a faster pace," Pritzker said. He said the effort will offer enough flexibility to be tailored to individual communities.

The Boston-based group Partners in Health will continue to advise Illinois officials in designing the program. The group has experience fighting outbreaks in the developing world and has developed a community-based tracing program that has become known as the "Massachusetts model."

Acting Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Wayne Duffus said the state recently sent a survey on contact tracing capability to all health departments. About half of them had responded as of Monday afternoon, he said. Of those, they had an average of 6.3 staff members working on contact tracing, making an average of 73 contacts per employee per week. Health departments reported needing to hire anywhere from one additional contact tracer to 900 more, he said.

"It's hard for them to keep up, not just in Illinois but nationwide," Duffus said. "This program is dedicated to scaling up rapidly. IDPH has communicated to the local health departments to start today to immediately use this information to draft their work plans and budget requests."

State public health officials announced Monday fewer than 100 deaths for the third consecutive day, while the Illinois Department of Public Health said it had confirmed nearly 2,300 new COVID-19 cases after testing almost 21,300 specimens. An additional 59 residents died, according to IDPH, which reported there have been 4,234 deaths of Illinois residents with COVID-19 on the death certificate. Pritzker last week said epidemiological models showed the virus peaking in the middle of June.

The state's hospital capacity has also improved, according to the IDPH numbers. On April 12, the first day when data was available, there were 800 patients with COVID-19 on ventilators in Illinois hospitals, 485 non-COVID patients on the machines and just under 1,800 more available statewide. As of Sunday, there were 636 COVID-19 patients on ventilators, 1223 non-COVID patients and nearly 3,800 available ventilators in Illinois.

The total number of people hospitalized with confirmed or suspected coronavirus cases was 4,120, as of Sunday. That's down from more than 5,000 on April 28, and the lowest number since April 12.

IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike encouraged Illinois residents not to avoid needed health care appointments.

"With the time that has elapsed since the beginning of our relationship with COVID to now, we now have a lot of information that has translated into important mitigation steps and additional steps to keep us safe as we try to take care of our health and visit our medical providers," Ezike said.

"We do need to take care of our selves, our whole selves, including all of our physical health. We need to take care of our body, mind and spirit," Ezike said. "Let's take care of ourselves while being as safe as possible, while wearing masks when we're outside, while maintaining social distancing, while frequently washing our hands and cleaning frequently touched surfaces.

This article originally appeared on the Across Illinois Patch