Health Department Chief Warns Against Going It Alone On Reopening Plan | WGLT

Health Department Chief Warns Against Going It Alone On Reopening Plan

May 28, 2020

The top public health official in McLean County says her department doesn’t have the “necessary systems in place nor resources to safely move forward on our own” with a speedier reopening plan being considered Thursday night.

The Heart of Illinois (HOI) plan, developed in Peoria, was pitched as a faster alternative to the state’s Restore Illinois plan. The McLean County Board will discuss it during a special meeting Thursday night. It’s failed to gain much traction in the 11 counties included in the plan.

Because of that, McLean County Health Department Administrator Jessica McKnight said her analysis of the HOI plan “proceeded on the assumption that McLean County would be moving forward on its own using the presented HOI framework.”  

“Without the necessary systems and resources in place we cannot assure the safe reopening as proposed by that plan, and I have some concerns about how moving forward as a single county could impact our relationship with the state,” McKnight wrote in a memo to County Board members.

Meanwhile, Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner on Thursday sent his own letter to County Board members expressing concern over the "resolution for immediate implementation" of the HOI plan being considered by the County Board. Renner previously encouraged Gov. JB Pritzker to endorse the HOI plan.

"This plan was originally authored to create a separate Heart of Illinois subregion to expedite the area's reopening, many elements of which will now already occur tomorrow, May 29. (Peoria) Mayor (Jim) Ardis and I always intended this plan to be consistent with Gov. Pritzker's executive order and uses its metrics for implementation," Renner wrote. "I urge you to be prudent and wait until further plans are properly vetted and to operate within the framework established by Gov. Pritzker."

Expanding testing

McKnight’s memo, however, does shed new light on how testing and contact-tracing capacity might expand in McLean County in the next two months.

The drive-thru testing site at the Interstate Center in west Bloomington is open to anyone every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s now run by Pekin-based Reditus Labs.

McKnight said she’s working with Reditus to identify by June 12 at least one additional alternative location for the company to administer tests—a place that’s accessible by public transit and available at least a few days every week.

There also are plans to expand testing at the Chestnut Family Health Center at 702 W. Chestnut St. in  Bloomington. It’s currently open two days per week and has done only a limited number of tests. McKnight told County Board members the plan is to “expand to more days and mobile testing in rural communities.” The goal would be to collect 100 to 150 specimens every day.

To do that, the McLean County Health Department (MCHD) would need additional manpower (potentially volunteers), McKnight wrote. The earliest that MCHD would get involved with expanded testing at Chestnut would be the week of June 29.

To date, around 6,800 tests have been administered to McLean County residents. That's nearly 4% of the population, although some people may have been tested more than once.

Contact tracing

Until now, six employees at the health department have been enough to handle contact-tracing needs for McLean County, McKnight wrote. Together, they have capacity to manage an active caseload of 120.

The county’s record for active cases on a single day is 77. That happened May 20 after an outbreak at the Bloomington Rehab nursing home that has killed eight people and infected dozens more.

“No matter the approach McLean County takes, as we reopen, we are likely to see increases in positive cases of COVID-19 as well as clusters and outbreaks that will require the time and expertise of MCHD staff,” McKnight wrote.

Last week, MCHD found out it will receive $2.8 million in grant money from the state to expand contact-tracing. The department plans to hire 10-15 contact tracers for part-time, temporary work by July 31, McKnight wrote. Models suggest McLean County will need between 26 and 45 contact tracers, she said.

Enforcement capacity

On enforcement, the Heart of Illinois plan says “education and flexibility should be used prior to any punitive action taking place,” referring to businesses or other places that don’t abide by the phased approach. Enforcement would be a last resort.

However, the plan also calls for “ordinance language (to) be amended to give the authority to the Public Health Administrator of a jurisdiction/his or her designee and allow for the business to be fined or closed if adjustments are not made.”

MCHD’s Environmental Health division has received and responded to 85 social distancing and nonessential business operation complaints, as of May 20, McKnight wrote. Until now, the county’s seven sanitarians have been reassigned to focus on complaint follow-up. But MCHD plans to resume inspections of high-risk food establishments in the next few days, to prepare for restaurant openings in Phase 4 of the governor’s plan, McKnight wrote.

“Because both plans (Restore Illinois or HOI) allow businesses to open or expand operations, and because the MCHD maintains the role to follow up on received complaints or concerns, voluntary compliance of businesses with public health guidance and recommendations will be key,” McKnight wrote.

Phase 3 of the Restore Illinois plan kicks in Friday.

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