Several Democrats on the McLean County Board are expressing concern that the community has “lost control” of COVID-19’s spread and raising questions about why the health department’s contact tracing program has not grown more quickly.
“We are either close to losing control or we already have lost control of the virus,” said Democrat George Gordon, a longtime County Board member from Normal.
Gordon spoke at Monday’s County Board Health Committee meeting, which began with an hourlong discussion about COVID-19. Discussion focused on the health department’s contact tracing program and whether more local government intervention is needed, beyond the limited actions already taken in Normal and Bloomington.
The health department’s contact tracing program has been overrun with cases ever since college students returned to Bloomington-Normal, said administrator Jessica McKnight. The department has around 20 staffers trained as tracers and just onboarded 10 more, and 20 more are being brought on shortly. Yet the current surge would require 70, 80, or even 90 tracers to keep up with that demand, McKnight said.
When asked why the department had so few tracers, McKnight said a change in the Illinois Department of Public Health’s hiring strategy was partly to blame. She also said it’s been difficult finding candidates who live in or near McLean County, since the job cannot be done entirely remote. It’s also been hard to find candidates willing to work four to five hours a day, including on the weekends. (You can apply for these jobs on the county’s website.)
“Not everybody’s really on board with that type of job, and that’s what we’re looking for,” McKnight said.
“I’m just a little shook, as the kids would say, that you’re saying that we need 70 contract tracers at a minimum, and we have 20,” said Democratic County Board member Shayna Watchinski of Bloomington.
Watchinski and fellow Democrat Carlo Robustelli urged McKnight to be more “proactive” and “direct” if her department needs money or other resources to staff up. The Health Committee on Monday did sign off on plans to add another full-time health promotion specialist.
Democrat Sharon Chung and others asked whether the health department had made new recommendations to local governments about new mitigation initiatives. A county attorney, Chris Spanos, said the health department has been involved in meetings but that only the local governments themselves—not McKnight—have the authority to enact new restrictions.
“It’s headed toward a whole lot of not good,” Chung said.
McLean County Administrator Camille Rodriguez, who previously ran the health department, pushed back on Robustelli’s characterization of the contact tracing program as a “failure.”
Personal responsibility is key, she said.
“I don’t know if contact tracing has necessarily failed as much as everyone hasn’t done their part to not gather in large gatherings,” Rodriguez said. “And I realize that’s not popular. But it’s hard for me to know that our communicable disease staff are working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, throughout this entire pandemic, and they’ll hear this and that we think that they have failed. I think we all have a part in this.”
Robustelli said he and other elected officials have preached personal responsibility for months, but now was the time to address the county’s COVID-19 infrastructure.
That question of responsibility was also directed at local colleges, including Illinois State University, at Monday’s meeting.
Republican Susan Schafer of Bloomington, the committee’s chair, noted that other universities have suspended students who are not abiding by COVID-19 rules.
“The university (ISU) has to decide what they want to do to try and mitigate it with their students, to get them to understand. Wesleyan is included, and so is Heartland. To understand the severity and the impact not just on them, but on the entire community that they live in, whether they live in a dorm or an apartment,” Schafer said.
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