COVID contact tracing Wayne Duffus 2020-05-01
Local News

State prepares to ramp up contact tracing program to fight COVID-19

State epidemiologist Dr. Wayne Duffus described the plan for recruiting and deploying more contact tracers in an effort to further contain the virus that causes COVID-19. (Provided/Screenshot from video)

For weeks, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has repeated at daily COVID-19 briefings that reopening the state depended on significant progress in three areas: testing, tracing and treatment. At the briefing on Friday, May 1, the plan for increasing tracing was the dominant theme. 

Pritzker and Dr. Wayne Duffus, acting state epidemiologist, spoke about how contact tracing works, its purpose and plans to ramp up the state’s tracing efforts by the end of May.

Dr. Wayne Duffus describes the plan for recruiting and deploying more contact tracers in an effort to further contain the virus that causes COVID-19. (Provided/Screenshot from video)

Pritzker explained that contact tracers consult with people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and ask them to retrace their steps for the previous two weeks to identify as many people as possible who they had contact with.

Then the people who might have been exposed are contacted and urged to self-isolate for 14 days. 

The ability of the virus that causes COVID-19 to be spread by people who do not feel sick is one reason it has proven difficult to contain without large scale social and economic restrictions. Isolating people who are known to have been exposed could reduce the spread by people who have no idea they are infected.

“This is our primary tool for identifying asymptomatic spreaders,” Pritzker said. 

He said local health departments have contract tracing programs, but they were overwhelmed by the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Illinois health officials plan to model the contact tracing program after one developed by Massachusetts and will begin to “shape a massive statewide contact tracing operation, gradually building over coming weeks and then scaling up an army of contact tracers by the hundreds, then by thousands.”

“It’s an unprecedented public health challenge, so we need an unprecedented solution to meet this moment,” the governor said.

Pritzker said trust and privacy are important aspects of the system. All contacts will remain anonymous. 

“Looking backward and pointing fingers doesn’t help anyone in this situation,” he said. “It’s about what we do next to keep each other as healthy and safe as possible.”

In addition to notifying contacts that they have been exposed to the virus, tracers will inform them about resources they might need to make isolation feasible, things like alternative housing and grocery or medication delivery.

The state will be looking for people who can add to the ranks of contact tracers. Pritzker said some likely groups might be students, retired health care professionals, community health care workers and volunteers. 

Duffus said the state might need as many as 3,800 tracers, but the staff will not need to reach that level immediately. Rather, the staff will grow over time and will be designed for flexibility. Staff will increase when there is a surge in cases.

“Think of how we use the National Guard. Think of this as a dial not a switch,” Duffus said. 

He expects the program would begin ramping up and officially launch by the end of the month.

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