Coalition doesn’t want public money going to private companies to tackle COVID-19 in the city

A group of community activists Wednesday called for Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady to oversee contact tracing rather than a private company. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The People’s Response Network held an online rally Wednesday, saying they want city’s Department of Public Health to oversee contact tracing project.

A coalition of community activists, including two former city public health administrators, wants Mayor Lori Lightfoot to rethink plans to dole out millions of dollars to private companies for COVID-19 contact tracing.

The group, the People’s Response Network, wants to see the Chicago Department of Public Health oversee the project after filling hundreds of jobs they say the agency has shed since 1990.

“I have no faith whatsoever in the health department, but the health department is the only vehicle by which this pandemic can be brought under control,” said Dr. Howard Ehrman, one of the founders of the group and a former city public health deputy commissioner.

Last month, the Lightfoot administration released a $56 million request-for-proposals from organizations interested in coordinating “contact tracing and resource referral efforts” across the city.

The RFP requires the lead agency to “sub-grant 85 percent of contact tracing funding to at least 30 neighborhood-based organizations located within or primarily-serving residents of communities of economic hardship” that have also been most heavily impacted by coronavirus cases and deaths.

Lightfoot has portrayed the project as a “win-win” for some of the city’s most impoverished communities, areas that also have been the hardest hit by the virus.

“This isn’t about just a short-term project,” the mayor said last month. “We want this to be a career path for individuals to get the training and then see that there are other opportunities for them in health care.”

Contact tracing is the painstaking process of identifying and tracking down everyone who has come in “close, prolonged contact” with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

Under the mayor’s plan, the first tracers would start making calls by Aug. 1, joined by a second batch Sept. 15. They would join the roughly 40 contact tracers already assembled by public health.

Ehrman has been a harsh critic of the city’s and Illinois’ handling of the crisis, saying public health officials should have done more sooner to try to limit the spread of the virus. He and his supporters said Wednesday it was “unconscionable” that public money should go to private companies to help fight the pandemic.

He said contact tracing won’t be effective in the city until testing for the virus becomes much more accessible here.

“And the people aren’t going to go get tests if they don’t have confidence in the organization that’s testing,” Ehrman said. “So [public health] has got to hire not just upper-level people, but it’s got to hire nurses and all these other people who are from these communities. It will be a lot more effective way to do stuff than to get some national private company ….”

In a statement Wednesday, the mayor’s office said: “The city’s plan to expand contact tracing for COVID-19 cases is rooted in the community. … Besides funding the development of a contact tracing corps of workers in Chicago, this program will employ hundreds of people across under-served neighborhoods in our city, and invest in the long-term public health infrastructure of Chicago.”

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