Contact Tracing

‘Do Not Be Afraid Of Our Call': How Chicago-Area Contact Tracers Are Handling Calls During the Second Surge

As the number of confirmed cases continues to grow, so do the calls for local health departments

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

Contact tracers across Illinois have conducted nearly 140,000 interviews in recent months.

Their job is to interview close contacts of people infected with COVID-19 to track the spread of the virus. But as the number of confirmed cases continues to grow so do the calls for local health departments.

“We are definitely seeing a surge right now,” said Alexa Ristow, who is a case investigation and contact tracing manager with the DuPage County Health Department. “I think it’s very tough for us to keep up. Our staff are working tirelessly to contact and interview as many people as we can.”

Ristow said the DuPage County Health Department has a staff of 200 people completing anywhere between 550 to 700 interviews per day.  

“It helps us kinda understand the movement of the virus so certainly when people let us know locations they’ve been too that helps us really identify is there a potential for an outbreak here,” she said.

But sometimes the interview doesn’t go as planned.

“They called us a scam artist, they’re like how did you get my information,” said Rocio Arellano, who works for the Cook County Department of Public Health. “There was a lot of confusion.”

Arellano is a case investigator and manages a team of seven contact tracers—all bilingual. She said in the beginning of the pandemic it was a lot harder to get a hold of a contact.

“A lot of the attempts were going unanswered there was a lot of hesitation as to who we were, why we were calling, what we were calling about,” she said.

Since then health officials have launched a campaign, commercials, and radio ads to raise awareness about contact tracing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even released a video on what to expect during the phone call.

Contact tracers will ask questions, like if you’re showing symptoms, where did you go or who did you visit. Tracers will also provide safety tips and resources on where you can get tested.

“We’re getting a lot more response, people willing to talk and they know who we are now,” she said. “I think that’s making everything just a lot easier for us to conduct the interview.”

The interviews are voluntary and can last anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour.  Arellano wants the public to not be afraid of the call.

“I think callers think we’re going to call everyone and tell them Mary Sue or someone told me about you that’s definitely not the case,” she said. “We really try to emphasis everything is confidential.”

The Cook County Department of Public Health currently has 78 contact tracers. A spokesperson told NBC 5 the goal is to have a total of 400 contact tracers and case investigators, with most hired by the end of the year. The data collected from contact tracing is shared with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

If you get a call from a contact tracer the number will pop up on your phone as IL COVID HELP or (312)- 777-1999 so you know it’s legitimate. Keep in mind contact tracers will never ask for money upfront, your bank account, credit card, or social security number.

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