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Health Board Pushes to Extend Contract Tracing Program

The McLean County Board of Health met Wednesday, April 14, 2021.

Members of the McLean County Board of Health said Wednesday that it's a priority to maintain the county’s full COVID-19 contact tracing program.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has OK'd extending the program through Dec. 31. County health department administrator Jessica McKnight explained, however, that current funding won't cover the 50-person staff through that date.

During Wednesday’s board meeting, she and the department's clinical services administrator, Tammy Brooks, shared a staffing reduction plan: cutting tracers by more than half -- from 50 to 20 on June 1, and then to 10 after Aug. 31. The tracers also are trained to work at the county’s COVID-19 call center.

However, in light of rising COVID cases and uncertainties surrounding the pandemic's timeline, the board overwhelmingly supported finding ways to continue a full staff of 50 tracers.

“I don’t think we should be driven by money on this. This is a public health issue and we need to do what we have to do” within limits, said board member Susan Schafer.

McKnight estimated the extension would require more than $500,000 with only a reduced staff of 20 tracers. If the department were to keep the current staff of 50, and need to continue vaccine clinics the cost could be much higher. She said the department has requested $180,000 from IDPH, but she hasn’t learned whether the agency will provide that funding. 

A month ago, the reduction in staff seemed a reasonable transition, she said. Now, COVID cases are on the rise again. “But we have to balance out how many staff we think we need, and how many we can pay for,” said McKnight.

Several board members said the county should explore different avenues for maintaining the 50-person tracing team. Federal American Rescue Act money heading to McLean County can be used for the contact tracing budget, said Schafer, adding the health department also could use its reserves to meet the need.   

Pointing to COVID variants that are emerging, and no idea how long the pandemic will continue, Schafer said keeping tracers who already are trained is important.

“If we need to use the fund balance … we’re in support of that,” said board president Carla Pohl, who noted retaining the already-trained staff should be the goal.

The department will try to get the federal COVID relief first, of course, she said. But the reserves will be available if needed. 

“The numbers have started going up again, and this is not the time to let up on our effort,” added board member Sonja Reece. “The public is counting on us to do this, and to do a thorough job. There’s no one else doing this particular work.” 

Virtual town hall in Spanish

In an effort to reach the county’s Spanish-speaking residents, the department is hosting another virtual town hall as part of its health equity task force.

The vaccination facts forum, from 6 to 7 p.m. April 20, aims to help reduce vaccine hesitancy among one of the demographics hardest hit by COVID. The department hosted a similar virtual event on Feb. 22 for the Black community, which also sees higher numbers of COVID cases, and lower numbers of vaccine recipients.

“We definitely still have some work to do, to reach our most vulnerable, and make sure that we’re ensuring vaccine equity. And that’s something that we’re going to continue to work on,” said McKnight.

Guille Delgado, principal at Bent Elementary School, will moderate the forum that will include two local Spanish-speaking physicians. Besides the COVID vaccine, the panel will address other health-related issues pertinent to the immigrant community. 

“We’re hoping it will be very relevant for our Hispanic and Latinx brothers and sisters,” said board member Cory Tello. She said the department will be marketing the event on social media and other places, beginning Thursday.

$440,000 to cover mass vaccinations

Also during the virtual meeting, the board voted 8-0 to approve the FY21 COVID-19 mass vaccination contract. Board members Andrew Held and Dr. Alan Ginzburg were absent.

The contract, for up to $440,000, is a federally funded grant handled as an intergovernmental agreement with IDPH.

In other business, the board:

  • Noted vaccine clinic appointments refresh on the department website at 11 a.m. on Thursdays. Everyone 16 and older now is now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Discussed how Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are the only ones currently being used, given the pause in using the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
  • Discussed ways to attract and retain nursing staff to the department.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.