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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

McLean County Explores Creating COVID Call Center

McLean County Health Department
Eric Stock
The McLean County Health Department wants to staff a COVID-19 call center seven days a week.

McLean County health officials are looking into creating a call center to answer the public’s questions about COVID-19.

The County Board’s Health Committee on Monday approved funding for contract employees who could staff the center. The $69,802 budget addition for 2020 would be reimbursed through the federal CARES Act. The funding requires approval of the full county board.

McLean County Health Department (MCHD) Administrator Jessica McKnight said the call center is still in the preliminary stages, but added it is “urgently needed.” She said this is a good time to lay the groundwork since the county is not currently dealing with a COVID-19 surge.

County Board meeting via Zoom
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
The McLean County Board Health Committee met virtually Monday.

“We’ve gotten a lot of calls from the public about COVID-19 and we want to be able to be there and answer those questions for them,” McKnight.

She said the call center would be staffed 15 hours per day, seven days a week. Health department staff is available to take calls currently during regular business hours, but McKnight said it would help to have staff dedicated to address those calls, including at night and on weekends.

“They are working in all different departments and so having someone who is able to answer the phone at all times for the public, and be a person that they are able to speak with, we feel is very valuable,” McKnight said.

She said the call center also would be useful handling calls about mass vaccinations when a COVID vaccine likely becomes available to the general public.

She said there’s no timeline for when the call center would be established.

The funding also would be used to pay for an additional MCHD employee to handle data processing, including running reports from the software program, Salesforce, that the county uses for contact tracing.

“Salesforce is a great program for inputting information in and following that process of case investigations, contact tracing, charting the conversations you are having with individuals, but not as user friendly for running reports,” McKnight said.

The Illinois Department of Public Health provided the software at no cost to the county.

The health committee also signed off on adding a new communicable disease coordinator position to work specifically with schools in the event of a COVID outbreak.

McKnight said the position was cut from the health department about two years ago.

In a report to the committee, McKnight said the additional staffing is needed to “reduce fatigue and staff burnout and prevent staff turnover.”

The health committee also approved funding to pay $15,000 in pandemic-related overtime costs. That, too, will be federally reimbursed.

Testing shortfall

Health committee member Sharon Chung said McLean County doesn’t have a complete picture of the virus’ spread because testing at Illinois State University has been underutilized. She noted 1,058 students have been tested in the last week, well below the weekly capacity of 1,500.

“They are not really hitting these numbers,” Chung said. “That’s a little concerning to me.”

McKnight told committee members ISU is working on ways to expand student testing, but she did not give specifics. She also indicated that some students are getting tested at other testing sites in the community, rather than on campus. 

The university said in September it was planning to start requiring studentsto get tested for the coronavirus. ISU spokesperson Eric Jome said the university requires students living on campus to get tested and has started contacting students who have in-person classses to "strongly encourage" them to get tested. 

ISU reported nine coronavirus cases over the last week. Its testing positivity rate in that time was 0.9%.

2021 budget

MCHD is seeking a less than a 1% increase in its budget for 2021. The proposed $8.5 million budget calls for about 82 full-time equivalent employees.

In addition to the communicable disease coordinator position, McKnight said the department also wants to hire a full-time health promotion specialist to replace the communication specialist role the health department shared with county administration.

The county board previously approved replacing part of that position to hire a full-time office specialist.

The health committee will hold a special meeting on Oct. 21 to review the proposed budget, including the county jail and the McLean County Nursing Home.

The county board is expected to vote on the 2021 budget at its November meeting.

Editor's note: WGLT updated the story to clarify ISU's policy on COVID testing.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.