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More Contact Tracers, Mobile Testing Unit: Sangamon County Asks For $2.86M To Fight COVID-19

Sangamon County Department of Public Health
Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois
Sangamon County Department of Public Health

Sangamon County is looking to expand its COVID-19 testing and contact tracing efforts, and prevent outbreaks at long-term care facilities. The local health department is asking the Illinois Department of Public Health for $2.86 million to fight the new coronavirus over the next year.

The money would allow the department to hire more tracers, pay for a mobile testing unit to screen residents in rural areas, and buy testing kits and protective equipment for nursing homes and other facilities.

“Public health generally doesn't get an increase in funds,” said Gail O’Neill, director of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health. “When a national emergency or something like this comes, people kind of remember what public health is and say yeah, they need a little more help.”

IDPH sought proposals from all the county health departments, using federal money from the coronavirus aid package. O’Neill said her department turned in its application a couple weeks ago and hopes to hear soon how much and for what they get funding for.

More Contact Tracers

Sangamon County’s health department has up to ten nurses working on contact tracing , O’Neill said.

The county has seen more than 380 COVID-19 cases, and O’Neill said nurses are monitoring about 50 people with active cases.

About $1.7 million of what the health department asked for would expand those efforts by hiring up to 16 additional contact tracers on temporary contracts, an epidemiologist to oversee the program, and two resource coordinators. The resource coordinators, with a background in social work, would help those who have to isolate or quarantine with housing, employment and other needs.

The grant request includes $52,500 to pay for hotels in case a person’s housing situation prevents them from being able to properly isolate, and includes money for grants to cover healthcare costs and unemployment.

O’Neill said the department would reassign a couple of nurses who are doing contact tracing now back to their regular duties of tracking other outbreaks. So, the county would have a maximum of about 25 contact tracers.

That’s below what’s recommended by a recent study from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. The study estimates 30 tracers are needed for every 100,000 people, meaning Sangamon County with its 200,000 residents, would need 60.

But O’Neill said they’re meeting contact tracing goals now, and the money from the grant will allow them to staff up when needed.

“We certainly wouldn't start hiring massive amounts of people with nothing to do,” O’Neill said. “So it's kind of a cushion in case, (public health experts) think that there could be a surge in the fall … so the money's there in case we needed.”

The epidemiologist and two resource coordinators would be hired full-time. The county would use an employment agency to hire the tracers, known as disease investigation specialists. Training would be done through IDPH, O’Neill said.

O’Neill said hiring through an employment agency will allow the county to scale the program to its needs and avoid having to pay unemployment benefits if it hired too many tracers and then had to lay them off.

People interested in working as contact tracers can fill out a form on IDPH’s website , and their information will be sent to the local health department in their area.

The grant proposal includes $144,870 to buy laptops, WiFi hotspots and other equipment so contact tracers can work from home, instead of crowding into the county health department building where O’Neill said they might not be able to socially distance.

Mobile Testing Unit

For successful contact tracing efforts, robust testing is also needed.

The Sangamon County Department of Public Health also provides services to Menard County. The health department plans to use $175,000 from its grant and the grant for services to Menard to purchase a mobile unit to bring COVID-19 testing to rural areas in both counties and to those who can’t access the drive-through sites.

“Sometimes everybody doesn't have that car to get to the unit,” Dr. Wendi El-Amin told participants in a virtual Community Health Roundtable discussion last week. She is dean of equity and inclusion at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and part of the COVID Equity Response Team. “We have to make sure that we're going to individuals.”

The health department would also need to contract with two nurses to staff the unit for $117,000.

The health department would also purchase 350 test kits to provide screening for free.

The grant would allow the health department to purchase testing systems and kits for 20 long-term care facilities in the county, so each can test their residents and staff regularly. The estimated cost is $400,000.

Long-term Care Facilities

Another focus of the county’s response is preventing outbreaks in long-term care facilities. The Villas East, a nursing home in Sherman, experienced a COVID-19 outbreak that sickened more than 100 and led to 24 deaths.

In addition to the testing systems, the grant would allow for the purchase of $140,000 worth of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment for the facilities and other places throughout the county.

O’Neill said one challenge they’ve run into at nursing homes is that staff haven’t been fitted recently for the masks, which can put them at risk for contracting or spreading COVID-19 even wearing them. The county is asking for $11,000 from the state for fit testing kits.

“That way you know that the people that are doing the testing, and coming in contact with people who are positive are as protected as they can be with the right kind of mask,” O’Neill said.

The county is also asking for money to contract with a handful of licensed practical nurses to work with long-term facilities on infection control and outbreak prevention.

Grant Highlights

-Salaries and benefits ($237,670): Hire an epidemiologist to manage the contract tracing program; two resource coordinators; and Spanish interpreter.

-Travel ($54,625): Reimburse staff for travel for contact tracing; assistance for those who must wuartaine at home or in alternative housing; travel for mobile testing unit.

-Equipment ($144,870): Mobile unit; refrigerator for testing kits; laptops, WiFi hotspots and other equipment for new hires.

-Supplies ($603,500): Gowns, masks and other protective equipment for nursing homes and alternative housing for those in quarantine or isolation; testing system and kits for long-term care facilities; protective equipment fit testing systems.

-Contractual services ($1,757,500): Temporary contracts for 16 disease investigation specialists and three supervisors; four medical assistant or licensed practical nurses to assist with outbreak prevention at long-term care facilities; hotels for those who need alternate housing during quarantine or isolation; contracts with medical advisers from SIU School of Medicine and Memorial Health System.

-Telecommunications ($42,816): Cell phones and WiFi hotspot service; online meeting subscriptions

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