Chicago Will Work With Rush University To Track COVID-19 Variants

a laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing
In this March 11, 2020 photo, a laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing. With COVID-19 variant testing lagging in Chicago, the city is looking to Rush University for help. John Minchillo / Associated Press
a laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing
In this March 11, 2020 photo, a laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing. With COVID-19 variant testing lagging in Chicago, the city is looking to Rush University for help. John Minchillo / Associated Press

Chicago Will Work With Rush University To Track COVID-19 Variants

Update: The contract with Rush University Medical Center was approved Wednesday.

For weeks now, public health officials have been warning that new variants of COVID-19 could increase the spread and prevalence of the coronavirus.

And while some universities in the state and the Illinois Department of Public Health have done some tracking of the variants, Chicago Public Health Department officials say the city has not had the resources yet to do so on its own.

But on Wednesday, the City Council will consider a $3.5 million contract CDPH awarded to Rush University Medical Center, which the city hopes will speed up tracking of the potential variants.

Christina Anderson, Deputy Commissioner of the COVID Response Bureau with the Department of Public Health, told aldermen during a committee vote last week that the city does not have the resources to conduct this research in-house because it requires a highly specialized test that isn’t widely available.

“Right now the city does not have the ability to monitor this because we do not have a public health lab, nor a partnership with a lab that has this capability,” Anderson told members of the Budget Committee. “To build our own public health lab would cost millions of dollars and startup costs, and (take) several years to construct and (be) fully certified.”

The city put out a request for proposals inviting diagnostic labs across the region to apply. Rush University Medical Center was the only respondent.

The city will use previously appropriated funds as well as a $500,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agreement will cover the sequencing of up to 6,000 positive COVID-19 samples, Anderson explained.

This includes outlier cases, such as patients who experienced a second infection or tested positive even after receiving a vaccine.

The Illinois Department of Public Health has been reporting statewide numbers of COVID-19 cases that appear to be variants, but Illinois has reportedly lagged other states in the number of tests it does to identify them. The Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine helped identify the first case of a variant of coronavirus found in Chicago in mid-January.

As of Tuesday, there were 43 known cases of coronavirus variants, according to IDPH. Nearly all — 42 — of the cases were tied to those originally detected in the United Kingdom; one case was tied to a variant found first in South Africa. Research has so far shown that the South African variant spreads more easily, a worry to health officials.

Federal COVID-19 relief could spur heated debate about police spending

Update: Consideration of this ordinance was postponed to Friday.

The City Council Wednesday will also consider an ordinance appropriating a second round of federal coronavirus relief aid that is sure to spark a heated debate. A small cohort of freshman aldermen have been blasting the mayor for using $281 million in previous federal COVID-19 money on the Chicago Police Department.

They argue that the Police Department, which already gets the largest share of the city budget, is the last department the city should be using pandemic relief on when people are struggling to pay rent and businesses are barely staying afloat.

Their outrage comes as the administration quashed a scheduled vote last Friday on two ordinances that would give civilians more oversight of CPD. That came on the heels of an inspector general report that heavily criticized the department’s handling of the George Floyd protests earlier this summer. Ald. Matt Martin, 47th Ward, is planning to introduce a resolution calling for a hearing on the report.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has already dismissed their objections to the COVID-19 spending as “dumb.” The budget department has defended the appropriation saying the city relied heavily on police officers for pandemic-related security and outreach. Chicago police officers manned the airports, conducted wellness checks and provided security at the temporary hospital at McCormick Center and vaccination sites.

$570k in police misconduct settlements

Update: These settlements were approved Wednesday.

Two police misconduct settlements are also up for City Council consideration and are unlikely to receive unanimous support, as was the case in the finance committee on Monday.

One settlement totaling $175,000 would go to Ashanti Franklin and her family after they were the subject of a mistaken police raid that was part of a joint task force with federal agents. They sued the city claiming they suffered from emotional distress after police broke down their door with guns drawn early one morning in March 2017. Some aldermen questioned why the FBI or DEA wasn’t sharing the liability. A law department spokeswoman said federal agents were never served.

Ald. Chris Taliafero, 29th Ward, also questioned why the city is on the hook when “there are no egregious actions being alleged.”

Taliafero, a former police sergeant, said at most the city should only be on the hook for the cost of repairing the broken front door. It advanced out of committee with six aldermen voting against it.

The other settlement would go to the family of James Anderson who was fatally shot by police in 2015. Anderson had a history of mental illness.

His mother, Pamela Anderson, the plaintiff, called the police because she needed help taking her son to the hospital. According to the lawsuit, she warned officers that her son usually carried a knife.

He was fatally shot after wielding a box cutter at the responding officers. The city agency that investigates fatal police shootings ruled the deadly force was justified. The case had gone to state court but ended in a mistrial. City lawyers are offering his mother a $400,000 payout to cover legal fees.

Claudia Morell covers City Hall for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.