Illinois COVID-19 contact tracing trouble revealed by data investigation

ByChuck Goudie, Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Ross Weidner and Jonathan Fagg WLS logo
Tuesday, November 10, 2020
Illinois COVID-19 contact tracing trouble revealed by data investigation
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New data shows that the contact tracing process is often frozen by people who won't pick up the phone.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Data obtained and analyzed by the I-Team reveals that contact tracing is not working as well as it could in Illinois. Contact tracing is a widely recognized public health tactic used to contain the spread of viruses by tracking down the people who've had contact with someone whose just been diagnosed with COVID-19 and making sure they isolate and get tested. But new data shows that the process is often frozen by people who won't pick up the phone.

"I have a lot of family members that were infected by the virus, and then also, I have a lot of friends that were, that died from the virus," said Delfino Vargas.

He told the I-Team he's lost four friends to COVID-19 - people in their 30s. Now he's becoming a contact tracer to help those in his hard hit Back of the Yards neighborhood.

"I wanted to make an impact in the community," Vargas said.

"Unfortunately our neighborhood and our culture is more susceptible to this virus," said Craig Chico, CEO, Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. "We're suffering from that right now."

The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council is among 31 community-based organizations hiring contact tracers across the city, 600 in total, building the new Chicago COVID Contact Tracing Corps by reaching those most impacted by the virus.

"When you look at the devastating effects of the pandemic has had on African American and Latinx communities, not only through the disease but through the dislocation of employed people, this really seemed like a great opportunity to get community involvement and engagement to not only help stem the transmission of the disease, but to also create job opportunity," said Karin Norington-Reaves, CEO, Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership.

Chicago Department of Public Health officials tell the I-Team that the 31 community-based organizations managed through the Chicago Cook Work Partnership have so far hired 537 contact tracers and the department plans to add an additional 150 contact tracers from 28 partnering health care organizations.

Contact tracers fight COVID-19 by calling those who test positive and asking for the names of their close associates. Then, they contact those people and ask them to get tested and isolate - trying to track the disease and stop further spread. The problem is that many public health officials say people aren't picking up the phone when contact tracers call, meaning missed opportunities to stop the virus in its tracks.

New Illinois Department of Public Health data analyzed by the I-Team reveals that suburban Cook County is reaching the smallest percentage of COVID-19 cases statewide --only 9% of positive cases were interviewed by contact tracers between August 1 and October 24.

Cook County Department of Public Health officials tell the I-Team in a statement that "CCDPH's contact tracing initiative is currently staffed at about 20 percent of the initial target. The state's metrics reflect those current capacity limitations. However, the metrics presented do not present the whole picture. CCDPH has endeavored to grow its contact tracing over the last few months from 25 to a goal of 400 people. We have conducted 500 interviews and since bringing 75 new contact tracers and case investigators onboard have almost tripled our capacity. We have accelerated our hiring processes to ensure we are able to have most teams onboarded by the end of the year. Those that are working are having success reaching and placing COVID-positive individuals into isolation."

In Chicago, state data for the same time period shows that contact tracers only interviewed 30% of cases. Additional city data obtained by the I-Team through the Freedom of Information Act reveals that Chicago contact tracers tried to contact 39,824 people -- both cases and close contacts -- since the start of the pandemic through mid-September, but only reached 17,175. That means nearly 60% of all calls attempting to reach people diagnosed with or potentially exposed to COVID-19 failed.

"There's a there's a sizable portion who we just aren't able to reach," said Tina Anderson, the CDPH Deputy Commissioner of COVID response bureau. Chicago Department of Public Health officials say as of mid-September, they reach 83% of all people who test positive within 24 hours.

"When public health calls you, you have an opportunity to protect your health, yourself and your community, by working with us," Anderson told the I-Team. "This is the opportunity to act it's the opportunity to cut off the next exposure and kind of prevent that spread from continuing."

In DuPage County, data from May through September obtained by the I-Team via FOIA indicates 16,998 unsuccessful calls and 3,564 people unreached during the pandemic.

According to IDPH data from the August 1 to October 24, DuPage health officials have reached 70% of all positive cases. Successful case contact varies widely across the Chicago area from Will County at 53%, McHenry at 67%, Lake at 74%, and Kane at 73%

"We're a data driven community here in Kane County," said Uche Onwuta, Director of Health Protection the Kane County Health Department. "The biggest challenge we face is people picking up their phone."

Public health experts stress that contact tracers never share your private information with other agencies, such as law enforcement or immigration. They don't even tell contacts whose numbers you provide that you're the person who tested positive.