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COVID-19

COVID-19 Contact Tracing Helps Slow the Spread

What to Expect if You Get a Call

Published March 2021

Northwestern Medicine has teamed up with the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) to perform contact tracing to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Contact tracing is required to protect public health.

"Contact tracing is one of the best opportunities we have to slow the spread. This is a powerful public health tool, but many people didn't know about contact tracing until COVID-19," says Rebecca Frieders, manager, Northwestern Medicine ambulatory care coordinator and CDPH contact tracing agent.

To perform contact tracing, a specialized staff member (called a contact tracing agent) calls a patient who has tested positive for COVID-19. The agent ensures the patient has the information needed for good self-care and asks for names and contact information of people who may have been exposed to the patient in the past few days. Then, the agent reaches out to those contacts to let them know that they may have been exposed to someone who now has COVID-19. Everyone's privacy is protected, and the contact is not told the name of the person who tested positive.

The agent makes sure the contact understands what is needed for safe self-monitoring and care. When patients and contacts all take good care of themselves, further spread of COVID-19 can be prevented.

Contact tracing is the best opportunity we have to slow the spread.
— Rebecca Frieders, manager and contact tracing agent

The unique arrangement is being funded by the CDPH Contact Tracing Program. The city of Chicago has been overwhelmed with calls for information and other resources during the pandemic, so it has engaged Northwestern Medicine to support this important work.

Why Contact Tracing Is Important

People benefit in many ways from participating in a contact tracing phone call. During the call, contact tracing agents:

  • Let people know they may have been exposed to COVID-19
  • Explain how to monitor their health for signs and symptoms
  • Encourage them to get tested and explain how to arrange this
  • Connect them with resources for things they may need, like medication and cleaning supplies
  • Help them understand guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and encourage them to isolate if they have COVID-19 or quarantine if they are a close contact
  • Escalate care for patients who are seriously ill or who have complex medical questions
  • Can provide full language translations

Information discussed during a contact tracing call is confidential and is never shared with other agencies such as law enforcement or immigration.

Northwestern Medicine's team of nine certified contact tracing agents began working with CDPH in December 2020. In the first three months, they completed more than 740 cases. The team is also working with other local hospitals that are participating in the program. Program funding runs through July 2021.

"The CDPH Contact Tracing Program is a testament to the city's dedication to keep the city safe and to flatten the COVID-19 curve," Frieders says.