Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday announced plans to try to train hundreds of people to track the spread of the coronavirus and warn Chicagoans who’ve had contact with someone who’s carrying the disease.

Such a large contact tracing program is considered a key way to slow the spread of the virus by promptly warning people who’ve had significant contact with those who are sick so they can quarantine themselves before they spread it further.

But it will be difficult to get it up and running as quickly as experts would like, with the city and the state of Illinois moving toward phased re-openings that will bring more residents into close proximity with each other.

The effort to set up a 600-person contact tracing team with many members in city neighborhoods suffering the most from economic hardship, comes with a $56 million price tag, to be funded using federal and state money, Lightfoot said. She’s first looking for an organization “to lead coordination of contact tracing and resource referral efforts across the city,” her administration said in a news release.

At least 85% of the funds will then be distributed to “at least 30 neighborhood-based organizations located within, or primarily serving residents of, communities of high economic hardship,” according to the city.

Those community groups would be in charge of “recruiting, hiring and supporting a workforce of 600 contact tracers, supervisors, and referral coordinators to support an operation that has the capacity to trace 4,500 new contacts per day.”

Contact tracers will make $20 an hour, and supervisors will make $24 an hour, Lightfoot said.

Contact tracing involves finding, warning and quarantining everyone who has had significant contact with newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients.

It’s a technique that dates back to at least the early 20th century in the United States and has proved useful in containing epidemics caused by a range of communicable scourges, including sexually transmitted diseases, measles and Ebola.

It’s also been credited with limiting the spread of COVID-19 in other countries, including South Korea and Singapore, where the government used digital surveillance and enforcement methods that likely would meet stiff resistance here from privacy and freedom advocates.

Epidemeologists say a robust contact tracing system is needed across the United States to ensure future spread of the disease is contained as much as possible.

It’s especially important, they say, as cities and states reopen their economies, so that “hot spots” of the disease can be prevented.

Here’s how it works: When a confirmed case of COVID-19 is reported to the state, a contact tracer tracks down the sick person, or their relatives when the person is too ill to talk or has died from the disease.

The interviewer tells them the patient should be isolated at home until they no longer are believed to be contagious. Sometimes, if the person doesn’t have the capability to isolate on their own, they refer them to social service agencies that can help find alternative housing and delivery of food, medicine or health care services.

The interviewer tries to determine who the patient had contact with up to two weeks before symptom onset. In some cases, a person may have no symptoms at all, making that calculation more difficult.

The tracers then track down those contacts and attempt to speak with them. They suggest precautions to avoid spreading the disease and ask them to quarantine at home for two weeks from the time of contact with the infected person, or if they are sick, until they have fully recovered.

Ideally, the tracers also would track down the contacts of everyone who is presumptively diagnosed with COVID-19, given that person could be spreading SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes the disease — before a test confirms they actually have it, experts said.

It’s labor-intensive work. According to some estimates, there should be 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 people. In Chicago, with 2.7 million people, that’s 810 contact tracers.

All of Illinois, with a population of nearly 12.7 million, should have about 3,800 contact tracers total, according to the estimates.

Although contact tracers are typically hired locally, the Illinois Department of Public Health is taking applications from folks who want to do the work and plans to match them up with the state’s 97 regional and county health departments, the largest of which is the Chicago Department of Public Health.


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