WCHD CONTACT TRACERS SPEAKING WITH THOSE POSSIBLY EXPOSED
As of Friday, August 14th, Will County was one of 14 Illinois counties placed on the IDPH’s (Illinois Department of Public Health) weekly list of counties considered to be at a “warning level” (also known as “orange level”) for Coronavirus.
Other Illinois counties on the latest list included Bureau, Cass, Clinton, Franklin, Greene, Grundy, Hancock, Jefferson, Kane, LaSalle, Moultrie, Perry, and Union.
This means that there are signs of increased COVID-19 activity within the county. Two troublesome factors cited for Will County were an increased rate in the incidence of positive tests (93 per 100,000 residents, after a rate of 71 per 100,000 residents the previous week), and a two-week increase in percentage of visits to the hospital for CLI (Coronavirus Like Illness).
Counties designated as “warning levels” are asked to implement measures for increased testing and contact tracing. WCHD (Will County Health Department), however, has already been active in doing both. For testing, the WCCHC (Will County Community Health Center) Mobile Medical Unit has been participating in both walk-in (open to the public) and congregate settings (for clients and employees of various shelters and organizations) testing for several months. (For the latest schedules, go to http://willcountyhealth.org/mobile-medical-van-coronavirus-testing-dates-congregate-settings-and-public/.)
The Contact Tracing Program, however, it still in its infancy. Thus far, the newly hired contact tracers in Will County are finding a disturbing “mixed bag” of attitudes within the county’s residents identified as close contacts.
In Will County’s program, similar to other counties, contact tracers are working remotely to get in touch with these residents who may have been exposed to Coronavirus by someone who recently tested positive. Currently, 30 contact tracers are working various remote shifts, making phone calls from 8 AM to 6 PM Monday through Saturday. Up to 60 contact tracers may eventually be hired.
WCHD Contact Tracers Program Manager Angela Maffeo says contact tracers making the calls are definitely noticing too much of a “so what” attitude out there.
“At first, they are often willing to talk, but then they stop when our contact tracers ask about who they were with at the location where they may have picked up the virus. They don’t want to tell on anybody, even though it is crucial that these close contacts be informed and told to quarantine to avoid potentially spreading the virus to others.”
WCHD Contact Tracers Program Manager Susan O’Keefe says people not caring about those beyond their own households is another problem. “You often hear the attitude of, ‘what’s in it for me?’ In other words, if their family is okay, they feel they don’t have to worry. Or even within their own family, you might have four people test positive after going to an event, and then the one person who tests negative thinks he or she is home free. That’s not true. They could still become symptomatic later, or still pass it on to someone else. They need to stay isolated for 14 days, starting with the last day they may have been exposed to the person who is in the infectious period.”
While human beings often want to look on the positive side, there is a difference between being positive and being careless. One common example, Maffeo and O’Keefe both agreed, is someone getting tested for COVID-19 after being told they might have been exposed, but going about normal activities and social events while waiting for their test result. “They can’t just say, ‘okay I did the right thing and got tested, now I can go back to regular life.’ That is dangerous,” Maffeo said. “Because if the test does turn out positive a few days later, they may have exposed many other people to COVID-19 by the time the contact tracer calls them.”
There is also a popular attitude of “I’m only going to social events with a small group of people, so I’m fine.” In that case, O’Keefe says, they end up ignoring the guideline about keeping six feet of social distance.
“It’s a basic attitude of, ‘I’m over it already. I’m going to this small birthday or graduation party.’ But if they don’t observe social distancing and don’t wear a mask, then go to another small gathering and then another, they are still behaving dangerously. They also might say, ‘I’m in a part of the county that has less cases.’ But that does not matter. We are a very mobile society. Even if we stay put, others are driving all over the county and coming from other counties. We know of a family that hardly ever left the house because a couple of them had compromised health situations. They were just running occasional errands for food or to the bank, and yet, one of them caught Coronavirus.”
How do you know you are getting a call from a contact tracer? Your caller ID should read “COVID CONTACT,” with the phone number “312-777-1999.” And as Maffeo points out, there are many ways that a contact tracer can help you. “Some of whom contract tracers speak with bring up HIPAA laws that they feel should keep the tracers from being able to ask certain questions. But we can e-mail them a copy of legislation that shows communicable disease surveillance is permissible to control the spread of disease. In addition, contact tracers can provide a written excuse from work or school, and even a written notice that says you are now cleared to return to work.”
O’Keefe says there is one analogy she keeps hearing that is very true. “It states ‘we are building this airplane while we are flying it.’ And that is exactly right, because there is so much we still have to learn about how this virus works and how it spreads.”
Another complication being studied on the fly is how to assist with the mental health perspective of the contact tracers themselves. “This is very challenging work,” O’Keefe explained. “They might be talking to someone with a small infant who could be or already is infected. Or speaking with a patient who is already in the hospital and now has more to worry about. During our weekly virtual Teams meetings for the tracers we work hard on keeping our spirits up. And that’s another challenge for now and the future.”
Maffeo and O’Keefe both say that people often ask “what can we do to keep our state from going back to a situation where we are told to stay home and local businesses are closed?’ They say the answer is exactly what it was when everything started in the spring: Follow all guidelines concerning mask wearing, social distancing, staying away from large gatherings, and washing your hands frequently.
For more information on Coronavirus activity in Will County, please go to https://willcountyhealth.org.
For more on how Will and other Illinois counties are doing in the fight against Coronavirus, go to https://www.dph.illinois.gov/countymetrics.
To register a complaint about Will County businesses not observing Governor Pritzker’s mask ordinance, or other Coronavirus related concerns, call WCHD COVID-19 Hotline at 815-740-8977.