Nearly eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker on Friday finally gave the public a glimpse into how the state is tracking the virus as it surges once again, and what officials know about where exposure to the virus may have happened and where outbreaks have occurred.
In short, the majority of counties in Illinois have reached at least half of those infected with COVID-19 who they were trying to track in recent months. In the Chicago region, those numbers are much worse, with caseworkers reaching only 30% of those infected with the novel coronavirus.
Health experts have long lauded contract tracing — tracking where people who have COVID-19 have been and who else they may have exposed — as a key way to track outbreaks. Illinois largely depends on local health departments to do contact tracing.
“This information, in addition to broader scientific research on COVID-19, not only guides our mitigation efforts but should serve as a resource to residents as they work to keep themselves and their families safe,” Pritzker said in a statement on Friday. “Just like wearing a mask, answering a contact tracer’s call is a way to help keep your family safe and protect your community – and that’s going to be even more important with community transmission as high as it is.”
The state has been reluctant to share more details with the public about where COVID-19 cases originate. That’s despite loud cries from the restaurant industry in particular as Pritzker has largely stopped the public from eating and drinking inside bars and restaurants across the state to curb the quickly-spreading virus.
Illinois surpassed 10,000 deaths from COVID-19 this week, among nearly 466,000 cases. Hospital beds are filling up once again with critically ill patients, sounding off alarms from physicians and nurses who witnessed the first wave of the virus in the spring.
Chicago and Cook County lag
Here’s the snapshot the Illinois Department of Public Health has posted online. Out of nearly 192,000 cases from Aug. 1 to Oct. 24, local health departments around Illinois attempted to track down patients in about 69% of cases and were able to interview people in about 54% of those cases.
By region, suburban Cook County appears to be doing the worst, interviewing just 14% of confirmed cases, followed by Chicago, which interviewed about 30% of cases. The east central part of the state appeared to be doing the best, interviewing those infected with the virus in about 85% of cases.
By county, the Cook County public health department performed the worst of any department in Illinois, interviewing infected people in just 9% of cases. The county did have the second-highest number of cases of any local health department in the state, with nearly 33,000 in the time frame shown.
In a recent interview, Dr. Rachel Rubin, who runs the Cook County public health department with another physician, warned that their contact tracing numbers wouldn’t look good.
“But it does not reflect our efforts, and all the health departments are a little concerned that these numbers are coming out at this point,” Rubin said. “We’re all still ramping up our contact tracing efforts, and we’re all working like crazy.”
Cook County has interviewed more than 475 people to become contact tracers, Rubin said.
She added that as the numbers of cases quickly rise — Illinois added another 10,376 new cases on Friday — contact tracing becomes less effective.
The majority of local health departments interviewed people in at least 50% of cases. Many of the departments that interviewed the most people had only hundreds or a few thousand cases.
Part of the struggle for contract tracers is just getting people to answer the phone when a tracer calls. Citing this challenge, “IL COVID HELP” will pop up in someone’s caller ID any time a tracer calls, according to the state. Pritzker said a survey showed people were more likely to pick up the phone when that appeared on the caller ID.
So far, there are about 3,300 contact tracers around Illinois, Pritzker said. The state’s goal is to have at least 3,800.
“Do we need more? Yes,” Pritzker said. “The case numbers have gone up and so we’ll continue to look at how we might be able to afford hiring more and how we might use more volunteers.”
The state data also includes breakdowns of where people may have been exposed to COVID-19, broken up by region and categories that people with the virus reported they may have been in the previous two weeks. Categories included bars and restaurants, schools, workplaces, offices and the like.
This comes as Pritzker had been hammered for months for his decision to shut down bars and restaurants, saying they’ve been a key source of the spread of the virus, but state officials had not provided substantial data to back up those claims.
Statewide, the data show an “other” category — which it says includes locations such as warehouses, funerals and hair salons — leads in possible exposure, with more than 4,179 cases. Next comes restaurants and bars, with nearly 3,900 cases, or nearly 11% of all cases reported in the document.
Still, the state’s data appears to be tracking only a fraction of reported cases --- there were more than 154,000 thousand cases of COVID-19 reported across Illinois in the past 30 days. The site’s data includes just 35,916 of them.
That data also did not appear to include Chicago’s cases --- the state site linked to another site for Region 11, which encompasses Chicago. But the link went to a PDF slideshow that gave limited glimpses into the city’s tracking of possible exposure, showing only a snapshot of about 1,000 cases it tracked over the summer and only listing the public places where people said they’d been.
Additionally, the state released data that show where outbreaks of the virus have occurred, or locations where five or more cases have been tracked that are people who are not related to each other, including schools. The state has been releasing data on which nursing homes have had cases and outbreaks, but this is the first time it specified where other outbreaks occurred.
The reporting shows that 52 outbreaks were tied to factories or manufacturing since July 1, the biggest number of any industry or location. Next came community events, followed by church, temple and religious services.
But in the past 30 days, outbreaks were led by church, temple and religious services, followed by community events, group homes and schools.
The state released data on which schools are dealing with outbreaks or potential exposures after ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune detailed how limited data was available to school administrations and parents as schools were reopening, or being shut down amid fears of the coronavirus.
The state data show there have been 10 outbreaks of coronavirus connected to schools in the past 30 days, including three in McHenry County and one in DuPage County. The remaining outbreaks have been in counties outside the Chicago region. Those outbreaks could also be those related to before and after-school programs, the state site said.
There have also been 647 schools with potential exposure to the virus in the last 30 days. This means people with confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases visited those schools. It does not mean someone was infected at one of the named schools.
Most schools are reporting five or fewer cases of potential COVID-19 exposure. The data from contact tracing includes private, parochial, and charter schools in Chicago but not traditional Chicago Public Schools, which keeps track of its own cases.
Since March, CPS has reported 309 cases where someone was in a building during the contagion period.
Kristen Schorsch and Tony Arnold cover politics at WBEZ. Angela Rozas O’Toole is the senior editor of the government and politics team. Follow them @kschorsch @tonyjarnold and @angelarozas. WBEZ City Hall reporter Claudia Morell and education editor Kate Grossman contributed.