Evanston contact tracing efforts already in full swing as Gov. Pritzker announces state initiative


Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune

Oakton Community College. The school is launching a contract tracing training program.

Samantha Aguilar, Reporter

Contact tracing efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Evanston were already well underway when Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the state would undergo a massive contact tracing operation at the start of May.

Part of Pritzker’s “Restore Illinois” plan requires aggressive contact tracing to move on to eventually reopen the state. He estimated the operation could include almost 4,000 contact tracers and cost around $80 million.

“This is an unprecedented public health challenge… so we need an unprecedented solution to meet the moment,” Pritzker said.

According to Evanston Public Health Manager Greg Olsen, the city launched its contact tracing efforts when the first COVID-19 case was reported March 15.

Early in Evanston’s contract tracing operation, the city would inquire residents with confirmed cases about the people who have been in close contact with them since the onset of their symptoms. The CDC defines “close contact” as someone who has been within six feet of an infected individual for longer than ten minutes.

When the CDC announced asymptomatic individuals could also transmit the virus, Olsen said the city expanded the scope of their inquiry. Now, contact tracers ask about close contacts up to 48 hours before a resident with COVID-19 started showing symptoms.

After each case interview, the Evanston Medical Reserve Corps calls every individual to alert them of their ‘close contact’ status, offer guidance on monitoring symptoms and advise them to self-quarantine.

“The number of close contacts has gone down significantly with the stay at home order,” Olsen said, “Now it’s mainly close family, people that you’re at home with.”

As the number of cases in Evanston has increased, so has the internal staff at the City of Evanston conducting case interviews. Olsen said the city met the demand for contact tracers so far.

“The good thing with this is people always want to help,” Olsen said. “We constantly get emails from people who want to help out.”

The city will refer potential volunteers to the Medical Reserve Corps page, where they can complete contact tracing courses required for the job.

As the state’s demands for contact tracing continue to increase, Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, IL, will launch its own contact tracing training program on May 26. The online, self-paced course is 25 hours long and should take trainees four weeks or less to complete, Butera said.

Stephen Butera, the school’s senior manager of media relations and communication, said Oakton could take on a position of leadership with its contact tracing training program.

“It was certainly heightened by the Governor’s indication in April that here in Illinois an army of contact tracers would be needed,” Butera said.

Sessions in May, June, July and August are all currently full, with almost 500 people signed up, Butera said.

As Evanston and surrounding areas work to increase the number of contact tracers, Olsen said he anticipates the burden on contact tracers will also jump.

“You hear talk of a second wave or third wave of infections,” Olsen said, “That’s the thing, we don’t want to reopen too soon because then we’re just introducing more people to this disease.”

Sneha Dey contributed reporting.

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Twitter: @samanthaagu1lar

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