CHAMPAIGN – Once considered an essential public health tool to control the spread of COVID-19, contact tracing has become a shadow of its former self.
The Illinois Department of Public Health ended both its contracted pool of contact tracers and its practice of calling those who tested positive starting May 31.
Now, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District is expected to do the same starting August 15.
The change began at the federal level in February, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that universal case investigation and contact tracing was no longer recommended for COVID-19.
Case investigators and contact tracers have been employed since the start of the pandemic to contact people who tested positive to identify their close contacts and to monitor positive cases in isolation and contacts in quarantine.
The local health district had 76 contact tracers in November 2020 and was still hiring more, but that operation is winding down, with only 15 people remaining in the COVID-19 unit, according to Stacia Simmons, the communicable disease investigator. of the agency.
On August 15, she will take on the role alone – along with two communicable disease investigators who are currently focusing more on monkeypox and other diseases, she said.
Simmons said the changes are based on both stopping state funding and a shift in policy. The health district has been one of the few in the state to continue COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing for this long, she said.
The state “advised public health departments to change direction,” Simmons said.
“As COVID will continue to linger in our county, we are entering a period where state and federal mandates are rescinded, funding is reduced and resources are reallocated,” said Health District Administrator Julie Pryde.
“That’s no reason to be complacent,” Pryde said. “Rather, we believe Champaign County residents have the knowledge and tools at their disposal to adopt effective precautions to prevent COVID-19 infections and to make timely care decisions if they have a COVID test. -19 positive.
Simmons and University of Illinois epidemiologist Rebecca Smith said contact tracing remains an important tool, but — as with other measures, such as masking, social distancing and testing — the focus has shifted to the individual to protect themselves and others.
“From a public health perspective, not much has changed,” Smith said. “From a political point of view, a lot has changed.”
Smith said she was sorry to see the end of contact tracing operations, “because it’s such an essential tool.”
At the same time, she says, she can understand because it’s also expensive and difficult.
“It’s very laborious,” she said.
The health district continues to offer support to the community in terms of referrals and remains available to answer questions, Simmons said.
It’s important to tell your own close contacts when you test positive and encourage them to test, she said.
Cases are on the rise. According to the latest update from the state health department on Friday, 97 of the state’s 102 counties were at a high level of transmission, of which 66 were said to be at a high level of transmission, including all of the mid-east. from Illinois.
As part of the state health agency’s June 1 change, people with positive cases reported in Illinois’ National Electronic Disease Surveillance System are receiving automated messages giving them the option to access a website link or call an automated line for further isolation advice. , contact notification and resource availability. The change did not affect the investigation of cases in congregate living facilities.
“Universal contact tracing and individual investigation of COVID-19 cases have been implemented as a tool to slow transmissions. However, the wide availability of COVID-19 vaccines, home testing of children, and updated isolation and quarantine guidelines have prompted a revised public health approach that is not unique to Illinois,” said announced the state agency in the spring.
In explaining its own rationale for changing its policy in February, the CDC included factors such as the increased use of self-tests allowing people with COVID-19 to notify their own close contacts, the emergence of variants with periods shorter incubation periods and rapid transmissions, a large number of asymptomatic or mild cases and the high volume of reported cases.
In other changes implemented Aug. 15 by the local health district, officials said it would no longer be able to provide hotel rooms as alternative housing for residents who test positive and that it would no longer offer food aid to people “sheltering in place”. at home.
Officials also said antigen testing will be available to long-term care facilities and other congregate living facilities to test symptomatic residents, but the health district will not have the resources to provide testing for surveillance purposes. .