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Recruitment lagging on suburban Cook County contact tracing, but officials tout ‘solid formula’

Wednesday, November 18, 2020
The Daily Line
by Alex Nitkin

Cook County public health officials have hired less than half the staff of contact tracers they had hoped would be working in time for an autumn wave of COVD-19, but leaders of the program say their efforts are already working.

As of Tuesday, the Cook County Department of Public Health had hired 78 staffers to identify and track suburban residents who tested positive for the virus, health officials told county commissioners during a more than three-hour hearing. The department plans to onboard another 64 tracers and case investigators during the next several weeks and has sent out another 160 offers awaiting acceptance.

In June, when county leaders announced they would dedicate $41 million in federal and state grant funding to drum up a contact tracing program for the county’s suburbs, they set a goal to hire 400 full-time staffers by fall.

“We’ve acknowledged that capacity is not where it needs to be,” Jennifer Koehler, director of the county’s contact tracing program, said on Tuesday. “But it’s important to note what’s been happening on the calls we’ve been able to make.”

She said staffers have called about 10 percent of the 67,000 suburban residents who have tested positive for the virus since Aug. 1. Case investigators managed to conduct interviews with 69 percent of the patients they called, and 25 percent of those interviewed were placed into isolation, Koehler said.

“On the calls we’re able to make, we’re reaching people — we’re engaging people,” Koehler said. “We’ve built a solid formula, and as we continue to build capacity, these trajectories will continue to improve.”

Their eventual goal is to call 90 percent of patients within 24 hours of their positive test.

The department has interviewed an additional 600 candidates for contact tracing and management positions, according to a presentation county health officials gave on Tuesday.

Koehler chalked up the hiring delays to a “rather complicated process” that includes drawing up unique job descriptions and negotiating with the union that represents employees. All told, the hiring process can take up to 90 days, she said.

The department has enlisted help from the Chicago-based Hektoen Institute of Medicine to help speed up hiring, officials said. They also scored approval from Cook County Independent Inspector General Patrick Blanchard’s office to kick off “emergency hiring” that circumvents typical county hiring procedures, an exception only allowed because the contact tracing roles are temporary.

The grant awarded to the county for contact tracing is set to expire on May 31, but Koehler said she expects the timeline to be extended.

Koehler also said the county is intensively looking for a diverse, multilingual group of job candidates who demonstrate “cultural competency” — a component she said would be critical to earning the trust of positive-testing residents.

She reiterated the job criteria after Comm. John Daley (D-11) noted that many low-income and undocumented communities registered low response rates to the U.S. Census because of a “concern about participation with government.”

About 30 percent of the contact tracers who have been hired so far are white, officials said. Another 35 percent are Black, 27 percent are Latino and 9 percent are Asian. Sixteen of the 78 staffers hired so far speak Spanish.

The department has also issued a $5.4 million Request for Proposals to enlist community organizations with outreach and contact tracing efforts.

Dr. Rachel Rubin and Dr. Kiran Joshi, interim co-directors of the Cook County Department of Public Health, also described an array of education and enforcement initiatives they have undertaken, including a “series of webinars” for suburban police departments on how to enforce compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.

County health officials are also empowered to cite non-complying businesses and refer them to State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for civil penalties, but Rubin said officials have “only gotten pushback from a small handful of businesses” who have flouted restriction orders.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise in suburban Cook County, just as they are across the rest of the state, officials said. As of Friday, the county had logged more than 101,000 confirmed cases outside Chicago with a 15.2 percent test positivity rate.

Chicago’s contact tracing efforts are being coordinated through a separate program overseen by the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership.

Related: City to hire contact tracers ‘from within communities’ to garner trust, Arwady says



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