Illinois takes over COVID-19 contact tracing from counties

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) is taking over COVID-19 contact tracing beginning today, Jan. 13, from the county health departments statewide including in Rock Island, Henry and Mercer counties.

Earlier this month, IDPH began transitioning to a consolidated statewide system through the IDPH Surge Center due to the rapid rise in positive cases fueled by the fast-spreading Omicron strain.

Janet Hill

Janet Hill, Rock Island County Health Department (RICHD) chief operating officer, detailed the changes the switch will bring in a news release Tuesday. In it, she also urged county residents to get vaccinated and those who test positive for COVID-19 to follow quarantine procedures.

“We understand that some community members might like more information or to see specific data, but with a small number of staff and continuation of other programs, we have had to maintain a balance,” she said.

County health departments and hospitals in the state are overwhelmed, she said, which is why the IDPH centralized contact tracing. During the pandemic, her department hired temporary contract tracers who will remain “until our currently assigned cases are done and our total cases start to fall significantly,” Ms. Hill told the QCBJ via email. 

The overall number of tracers has fluctuated with the surges, she said.  “At the highest, we had 20. We currently have nine, in addition to our full-time staff. We will continue to contact trace congregate care facilities and assist schools with their contact tracing efforts.”

In the past, her department also “attempted to call every positive case/family unit, but that became nearly impossible with such high case counts,” she said. “Contact tracing calls can take more than an hour. At certain points, we set priorities to call the most recently infected.”

What will the current reporting system mean for those who test positive for COVID-19?

“As of Jan. 13, all COVID-19 patients will receive an automated telephone or text message informing them of isolation or quarantine information,” Ms. Hill said in the news release. “All cases will be sent to the IDPH Surge Center to help automate the information provided so individuals have quick access to the best public health guidance. Other states, including Iowa, have used a similar process to help reduce call volumes for the local health departments and to disseminate information as quickly as possible to positive patients.”

Those requesting letters for release from work will need to request them from the state’s automated system, not the local office. “RICHD cannot issue release letters because this process is part of the centralized contact tracing efforts. The state’s surge center will take over all calls, but if you don’t get a call, you still must follow isolation and quarantine rules,” she warned.

“Our role is to help provide resources, reliable information, focus efforts on the prevention of illness, and prepare for emergencies,” Ms. Hill said. “We are proud of our staff’s efforts and the community partnerships we have forged during the pandemic. We will continue to serve the public in promoting prevention efforts, but individuals must take personal responsibility to ensure the community’s safety.”

That begins with getting vaccinated, public health officials agree.

“Vaccination remains our best tool to end the pandemic, but only about 60% of Rock Island County residents 5 and older are fully vaccinated. As a result, our case counts have risen to all-time highs,” Ms. Hill said.

“For the health of our health care workers and everyone in the community, COVID-positive patients must stay home,” the news release said. “Those who take home tests also must follow isolation and quarantine rules to keep all of us as safe as possible. We all have the tools to prevent severe illness: vaccination, boosters, masking, social distancing, handwashing, disinfection, and isolating when you are sick. “

“If you test positive, you should share your information regarding your symptoms, positive tests, or exposure with your worksite, family, friends and others that you care about before or after gathering,” she added.

The department will continue to have access to information gathered through the state, she said. “Right now, we will still issue media releases with case counts three days most weeks, but we may not break down the case count by age categories. We might just give total cases, but that decision has yet to be made.”

The three hours it takes to prepare a news release, she told the QCBJ “could be better spent because all of the health department’s other programs have been continuing throughout the pandemic.”

County health departments also will continue to offer community COVID assistance. Rock Island, for example, will provide links on Facebook and its website with the latest information. “This information might continue to change, so please ensure you are following the most up-to-date recommendations,” she urged.

“RICHD staff members will continue to address calls and concerns, but the IDPH Surge Center is not staffed by Rock Island County Health Department employees,” Ms. Hill warned. “Please understand that our staff will continue to do all that we can to represent Rock Island County and to address your calls and concerns as we hear from you.”

That includes by  following the most recent COVID-19 guidelines:

Isolation after a positive test, regardless of vaccination status

  • Stay away from everyone for five days. Day 0 is the day you feel symptoms or your test date if you don’t feel symptoms (could include fever, chills, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath, body aches, and loss of taste and smell).
  • After five days if you have not had any fever for the last 24 hours and your symptoms are getting better, you can leave isolation.
  • You must continue to wear your mask strictly for the next five days.

Quarantine after a close contact 

If you come into close contact with someone with COVID-19, you should quarantine if you are in one of the following groups:

  • You are ages 18 or older and completed the primary series of recommended vaccine, but have not received a recommended booster shot when eligible.
  • You received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine (completing the primary series) over two months ago and have not received a recommended booster shot.
  • You are not vaccinated or have not completed a primary vaccine series.

Vaccinated and boosted close contacts

  • Do not need to quarantine.
  • Should seek testing on Day 5, and if the test is positive, should isolate with the above guidance.
  • Should wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure. 

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