Members of the McLean County Board of Health looked to health department administrators Wednesday night for reassurance the agency will be prepared for a potential surge in COVID-19 this winter.
Member Susan Schafer asked whether the health department is exploring continuing its rural COVID-19 testing program after the end of October when is is scheduled to expire.
McLean County Health Department (MCHD) Administrator Jessica McKnight said she’s in talks with Chestnut Health Systems to explore “what we’re going to do for the winter.”
The program utilizes Chestnut’s mobile health unit to provide weekly testing events in Leroy, Colfax and Heyworth. In a memo to the board of health, MCHD Assistant Administrator Cathy Coverston Anderson reported the program tested 393 individuals between July 27 and Oct. 1, with 12 (3.1%) positive results.
The program deadline already has been extended once, from Sept. 24.
McKnight noted MCHD can request mobile COVID-19 testing from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).
“So that’s another avenue we can look into if we want to try and set up a testing site day in one of our communities,” she said.
MCHD Clinical Services Division Director Tammy Brooks said the department also is planning talks with administrators at Illinois State University concerning testing after students return to campus from winter and spring breaks.
“Shall we assume that in the conversations you intend to have with ISU, in the plan it would include fairly aggressive testing following each of their breaks?” asked board member Judy Buchanan.
“Yes,” replied Brooks, noting that ISU plans to roll out its saliva-based COVID-19 test lab in the coming weeks. The test is touted as providing faster and more accurate results than the current swab-based test, Brooks said.
Buchanan asked if that’s a technology MCHD plans on implementing itself.
McKnight replied the health department's focus has been on contact tracing and case investigation, and is now preparing for the mass rollout of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine. “So I hope we can keep our buckets full and not have too many where we’re not able to fill each of those,” said McKnight, noting the department is limited in its testing capacity based on staff size.
McKnight also provided an update on the department’s progress toward hiring more contact tracers.
Currently, the department has 28 contracted contact tracers, with plans to bring on another 10 over the next two weeks, McKnight said. Five of the current contact tracers are embedded at ISU.
McKnight said she’s waiting for IDPH to provide an updated target number of contact tracers the county needs to effectively manage COVID-19. The positions are funded through a federal CARES Act grant.
Brooks said 15 MCHD staff are trained in contact tracing and case investigation.
“So many of them could be reassigned to do just that in place of their regular job duties” should the county see a sudden surge in its COVID-19 caseload, she said.
As the department looks to grow its force of contact tracers, space will be a challenge, McKnight said. “We’re right now exploring some options within our building to be able to move some of those personnel. It may free up a little bit of space, but space is limited within our walls.”
Technology is another challenge, she said.
“Contact tracing, it takes a computer, it takes a headset because it’s calls through the computer, it takes internet,” she said.
Members of the board of health also approved contracts to staff the agency's planned COVID-19 call center.
Those positions won’t be filled until after the McLean County Board approves the MCHD budget on Oct. 20.
There’s no subscription fee to listen or read our stories. Everyone can access this essential public service thanks to community support. Donate now, and help fund your public media.