Oakton Community College is launching a new program to train people to become contract tracers, a job that state and national leaders say will be crucial to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and reopening the economy.
In about a month, students will learn how to connect with and monitor people who were in contact with someone infected with COVID-19 and notify them of their exposure. Historically, public health officials have done contact tracing during other outbreaks, such as with SARS and Ebola.
“COVID-19 has presented the need to scale the number of contact tracers that are available,” said Jesse Ivory, dean of adult and continuing education at Oakton, which is based in the northwest suburbs. “Now, we’re looking for our general public to be able to serve and come in. So with that, these folks do need baseline training.”
Gov. JB Pritzker last week proposed an $80 million program to hire 4,000 state workers to do contact tracing.
“In order to safely move back toward normalcy, Illinois, the United States, and frankly the whole world, we must contact trace on a never-before-seen scale,” Pritzker said during his daily COVID-19 briefing.
Contact tracers work remotely and can earn up to $28 per hour. Oakton’s training program is also being touted as a way to help recently unemployed Illinoisans who have been affected financially by the pandemic.
Oakton officials said it is the first contact tracing training program run by a college or university in the state. Oakton said Southern Illinois University is also planning a program focusing on central and southern Illinois.
While there is currently no certification required to work as a contact tracer, Oakton officials said they created the program in conjunction with training guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Skokie Department of Public Health. Oakton also tapped the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health for guidance.
The program will cover topics including epidemiology, health disparities among different demographics, contact tracing techniques and health regulations, such as patient privacy laws. It will also train students in communication skills and resume building. They’ll also learn how to use contact tracing apps.
The self-paced online course could be completed in around four weeks. It was going to cost $299, but Oakton announced on May 14 that it would be free after state officials said such programs shouldn’t charge students. The college’s education foundation will cover the cost.
The program will include a mix of pre-recorded video lectures, reading assignments, online tests and written assignments. Officials said they wanted to give students as much control over their progress as possible.
“We recognize many students are home schooling children, trying to upskill,” said Oakton President Joianne Smith. “By design many of our learning opportunities created right now are flexible to respond to the needs of the community.”
Oakton said they can train 60 people in the first session, which starts May 26. Students must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma or equivalency.
This story was updated to note that the program is now free for participants.