There's about to be a hiring frenzy for contact tracers in Chicago.
City health officials said Tuesday they have chosen the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership to manage $56 million in funding to community organizations, which will then be tasked with hiring 600 contact tracers by mid-September.
The first 150 are expected to be hired by Aug. 1. Officials say they're aiming to get ready for a possible surge in cases some predict may come later this year.
"While we're now looking at 150 [new COVID-19] cases a day it gives us an opportunity to ramp up so we have that capacity in place for when we might see an increase in cases in the fall," said Tina Anderson, COO for COVID-19 response for the Chicago department of public health.
This is part of the latest update from the city's public health department as it works to increase contact tracing efforts. Officials announced Tuesday that they chose the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, which will partner with four other organizations, from a group of applicants to manage the funding from the Center for Disease Control and Illinois Department of Public Health. The Partnership will in turn hire community organizations to do the actual contact tracing work.
Much of the focus will be on communities hardest hit by the virus — 85% of the funding must be distributed to groups located in or serving those neighborhoods. Contact tracers must also be hired from those same neighborhoods, city officials said. Contact tracers will earn $20 an hour with healthcare benefits. Supervisors will earn $24 an hour.
Contact tracing is one key element to reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Clinics like Howard Brown have been conducting their own contact tracing efforts throughout the pandemic.
The city has reassigned 200 health department staff to conduct contact tracing for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. They're hoping the additional tracers can assume a majority of the contact tracing efforts, while also building better relationships and connecting with neighbors and residents who need support services.
How contact tracing works
Officials say the city health department and clinic partners will continue to conduct the initial case investigation phone call with patients who test positive for COVID-19, gathering information and providing resources and next steps. They will also collect contact information for those with whom that person was in contact.
Next, contact tracers at the nearest neighborhood center will then call those people and alert them they believe they were exposed to someone with COVID-19. Contact tracers won't know or share who the original patient is who provided their name and number.
The contact tracer will ask individuals to get tested, answer questions and provide additional information and resources. City officials said they want to have these conversations happen within communities so people feel more comfortable sharing information that's vital to prevent community spread.
"It won't be 'so and so from the Chicago city government, [calling]," said Anderson. "It'll be 'so and so' from the neighborhood organization that I know and I've been to, that's around the block from me. And there will be built in trust there."
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the city's department of public health, dismissed concerns that outsourcing this work to multiple organizations might create delays or miscommunication. She said all organizations will be using the same data system where the health department can track their work in real time while allowing neighborhood organizations to better connect with residents.
She said other places have run into trouble with contact tracing when they went the "easy route" that worked with preexisting call banks or an academic partner.
"We wanted to distribute this," Arwady said. "Our desire to really build up opportunities in the parts of Chicago where there are major needs and to think beyond COVID[-19]."
But some local organizations and aldermen have protested the approach, opposing any plan that shifts public money to private health care providers.
"We oppose any private hospitals, medical schools and clinics ... getting any public funds for COVID19 public health activities and/or replacing CDPH to be the lead agency for any COVID19 activities, including testing and contact tracing," a group of organizations opposing the privatization effort wrote in a press release in early June. "People are justifiably wary of the potential privacy issues and civil rights violations of contact tracing. It must be done to protect the public by the public, not by private agencies."
City officials anticipate contact tracers will be able to connect with 10 people per day. Resource coordinators, who will be providing more in depth information and support services, are expected to connect with six people per day.
The city has said that currently, they've been able to assign 90% of the new COVID-19 cases for tracing within 24 hours. When asked to clarify what that means, officials said Tuesday that a CDPH investigator gets assigned a case and reaches out to that person within a day. But it does not mean that the contact tracer has necessarily reached that person and conducted an initial interview, they clarified.
Now that Chicago shifts into Phase 4 of its reopening plan, contact tracing experts anticipate tracing might become more difficult as people begin to move around.
"It's going to be a bit more difficult to find those contacts especially if someones like, 'Yeah, I went to that rooftop or that restaurant," said Dr. Anu Hazra, Co-Medical Director for Howard Brown Health clinic at 55th Street. "Trying to find contacts who may have been in contact with that person at that restaurant or on the way there will be much more difficult to find."
Other places that have already launched massive tracing efforts have found resistance. In New York City, thousands of contact tracers were hired. But a New York Times report earlier this month found tracing was off to a slow start. Tracers were having difficulty finding people, some found cooperation from patients lacking because of privacy concerns, and others criticized the tracers as not being well-trained for the task.
Arwady said contact tracers in Chicago have run into these issues, too, but could not immediately provide data on the percentage of unanswered calls made by contact tracers. Dr. Hazra at Howard Brown said they've particularly struggled to connect with the Latinx community, some of whom may distrust medical professionals, or are concerned about the immigration status of themselves or their neighbors.
When caseloads are lower, city officials said contact tracers will be doing preventative work. The city has developed an "Earn and Learn" program where contact tracers can simultaneously pursue a degree or certificate with the goal of leading toward more stable employment opportunities as community health workers or other public health related jobs.
Kate McGee covers higher education for WBEZ. Follow her @McGeeReports.