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Changes to contact tracing lead to confusion

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Record numbers of cases are being reported across Illinois.

Illinois is reporting record numbers of new COVID cases as omicron spreads throughout the state. While the highly transmissible variant appears to be more mild than previous strains, it's spreading rapidly.

Yet, a number of southern Illinois residents report confusion and a lack of guidance from public health officials.

Jamie White and her younger sons tested positive on December 28th.

"We have not received any calls or any emails, so we haven't gotten any paperwork," White said. "When I tried to reach the health department, I was told they're no longer doing contact tracing and was given a phone number to call, which I understand has been what most people are being told right now. But that number never picks up."

It's a stark contrast to her husband and oldest son, who tested positive just a few days earlier, on December 26th. They were quickly connected with a contact tracer.

"You know, she sent paperwork, here's how long your quarantine is. This is when you're released," she said.

A number of area health departments announced that the state's surge center would be taking over contact tracing starting on December 28th. The launch date for the surge center was pushed back to January 13th. But in the meantime, many Illinoisans say they feel like they're not getting any guidance - from anyone.

Jeremy Rosene's son got COVID over the Christmas holiday. Like White, he said the experience was very different from when he had COVID in 2020.

"I was bombarded. I remember getting multiple phone calls from the health department, different people contacting me, not realizing others had already done so," he said. "So just more contact than what was necessary, which is a stark contrast from what we've experienced recently, where I can't get a hold of anyone, even when I'm the one making the effort."

The changing quarantine guidelines from the CDC have also increased confusion. Meagan Jarrett said when she and her kids tested positive, all she got at first was an automated text message.

"We just had a link to the website and then the phone number, that's the generic phone number to the state that they give out the website that said, if you needed further guidance to contact your physician," Jarrett said.

She said that while the CDC has shortened isolation to five days, her children's school was still requiring a 10 day period of isolation. She said the Jackson County Health Department did contact her eventually — a week after her positive test.

Jackson County Health Department Administrator Bart Hagston said right now, several factors are creating a perfect storm.

"The giant spike in cases of COVID, the state centralizing the contact tracing, the CDC changing the isolation and quarantine guidance and testing, especially access to home tests, not being what it needs to be right now. So you've got all these factors converging right now and making a pretty big mess, quite frankly," Hagston said.

Jarrett said she has also been unable to figure out how to get documentation to prove that she was required to isolate by public health officials.

"I have to have documentation for work that kids have to have documentation for school. You know, if I don't have documentation, I can lose a job," she said. "It's it's terrifying, terrifying thought. I'm the sole breadwinner of the household."

The Jackson County Health Department announced on Facebook that it would no longer be providing letters of documentation. But Jarrett and others said they have been unable to get them from the state or their physician.

"It's the people who are sick that are going to have the worse fallout from it because like I said, some employers are not understanding," she said. "Even when people are actually sick and it what worries me is people could lose their livelihoods over this."

The Illinois Department of Public Health said in an email that the surge in cases has made it difficult to circle back and issue release papers, but the agency is following the CDC's guidance for isolation and that is what people should go by.

White said she's struggled trying to understand when it's safe for her and her family to be in public again. They're playing it safe, but she is worried that not everyone will do the same.

"But, you know, I think maybe the more frustrating part is knowing that no one is receiving any guidance right now. So are people just kind of deciding for themselves when they should quarantine?" White wondered. "It just seems like it isn't very helpful, you know what I mean? Like, this is kind of a time when maybe it would be really good to have guidance because everyone is testing positive and nobody's really sure what to do so."

Hannah Howell said she struggled to make sense of the guidance offered on the Illinois Department of Public Health's website, despite being a registered nurse who is studying for a master's in nursing. She's worried it will be a lot more difficult for people without medical training.

"I don't think that people are going to understand the instructions, but I also don't think a lot of people care. There's so much pressure to get back to work. There's so much pressure to, you know, not get vaccinated or such a disbelief. And in the evidence, we live in a society right now where opinions and beliefs are more valid than actual facts and scientific fact," Howell said. "And so unfortunately, I think that a lot of people that get these instructions, they're not going to follow through with those instructions. Because they simply don't understand them."

White said no one has asked her who she's been in contact with before she got sick, and the link she was sent only told her to notify close contacts herself.

"It was just please inform anyone you have had contact with. So kind of the honor system, so to speak, which we did," she said.

But White worries that not all people will do the same. Howell agrees.

"I don't think the majority are not going to self-report. You're going to have some with integrity who will do that. If I knew how to do that, I would do it," she said. "But I just don't. I don't think that it's going to be a good model to contact trace."

IDPH said with more than 100,000 cases per week, it's not possible to trace all close contacts and the agency is prioritizing cases involving those who are over 65 and high risk. Hagston said local health departments are also triaging cases due to the volume of cases and limited resources available.

"At the level of cases we're seeing right now, no, contact tracing does become very difficult, if not impossible to do," he said.

Everyone who spoke to WSIU expressed frustration at the lack of information, saying they felt like they were left to figure everything out on their own. Howell summed up the feeling many had: lost.

"It is insanity. This is this not this is not OK, I mean, we're just. We are we're lost. We are so lost right now," Howell said.

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Steph Whiteside is a Digital Media News Specialist with WSIU radio in Carbondale, Ill. She previously worked as a general reporter at AJ+ and Current TV.