Coronavirus

Here’s what local health experts say about new CDC isolation guidance, at-home test kits and contact tracing

“All we can do is continue to push out factual, science-based information in hopes that it will convince more to get vaccinated,” said Lisa Gonzalez of the DeKalb County Health Department. “We’ll continue to offer the vaccine until people stop asking for it.”

DeKALB - Contact tracing and isolation protocols could be changing as DeKalb County health officials wait for guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health on how to best interpret the newest federal COVID-19 guidance.

Lisa Gonzalez, public health administrator with the DeKalb County Health Department, said she and her team are still awaiting further direction from the state on how to best follow the new CDC isolation guidance in Illinois.

“We assume that they will adopt those new guidelines as is because historically they have done that,” Gonzalez said. “But as far as how it will change, I think for us as long as we have guidelines in front of us that’s what we’re going to be giving to the public. I do think there’s a lot with the new guidance, it does take some interpretation.”

On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance related to isolation protocols amid viral exposure and infection: Namely that if someone tested positive for the coronavirus and was asymptomatic, or didn’t experience any symptoms, they could shorten their time in quarantine from 10 to five days. The CDC asks that for the remaining five days, those who’s tested positive without symptoms be vigilant about proper mask-wearing while out and about.

She said the new CDC guidance does specify different actions based on vaccination status, including whether one is vaccinated and boosted or if one is fully vaccinated but not boosted, depending on how long it’s been since they received that second dose.

“Based on the information released so far from the CDC, they’re looking at the science behind when individuals are most infectious,” Gonzalez said. “They’re saying that 48 hours before symptom onset and for those few days after. I believe in the science that’s out there, I believe in the scientists who are working to try to evolve with this pandemic.”

What does that mean for local guidance? Will that be enough to thwart further community spread in DeKalb County, amid an influx of cases brought on by the omicron and delta variants of COVID-19, both highly contagious and spreading rapidly? DeKalb County reported the highest positivity rate of new cases in the entire region for the second day in a row Thursday, at 14.2%, according to the IDPH. Amid the surge, Northwestern Medicine health system has urged the public to not come to the hospital unless absolutely necessary, as beds in DeKalb’s Kishwaukee Hospital and Sandwich’s Valley West fill.

As of Thursday, eight Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds were available in the region, up from four Tuesday, and down one from the nine available Wednesday, according to the IDPH.

Dr. Michael Kulisz, chief medical officer with Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee and Valley West hospitals in DeKalb and Sandwich, said the new CDC guidance highlights how important wearing a mask is.

“If you’re asymptomatic, you have an exposure, you’re vaccinated, it’s important to make sure you’re still using the appropriate social distancing, the masking, hand washing,” Kulisz said. “The CDC obviously changes their thoughts as we learn more about the virus and disease process.”

Gonzalez said the message for the public remains the same.

“We’ve been saying the same message forever, get vaccinated, get boosted if you haven’t already,” Gonzalez said. “Find that booster shot this week, you could probably still do that. If you’re unvaccinated, avoid those family members and friends who may be most at risk. If you’re not vaccinated, the risk is just pretty high based on the community spread, so consider that when you’re planning to go to those gatherings.”

The DeKalb County Health Department is hosting a vaccine clinic, free for all who are able to get the shots, those 5 and up, on Jan. 6 at Northern Illinois University’s convocation Center. The clinic is by appointment only, and those interested can sign up at https://app.acuityscheduling.com/schedule.php?owner=21571681&appointmentType=29136323.

She said she hopes that once the holidays are over and people witness the significant community spread that’s occurring, they might mitigate their own lifestyles or get vaccinated and boosted.

“Unfortunately people don’t really see, necessarily, the value in the vaccine until it impacts them,” Gonzalez said, “So we don’t really know what the vaccine rates will look like moving forward. I do hope we’ll get to a higher vaccine level for our community but I know there’s a lot of differing views out there and I think it adds to our challenges.”

Gonzalez said she’s aware that her steady message might not be received by some.

“All we can do is continue to push out factual, science-based information in hopes that it will convince more to get vaccinated,” Gonzalez said. “We’ll continue to offer the vaccine until people stop asking for it.”

As of Thursday, DeKalb County reports about 55% of its population of about 100,400 is fully vaccinated.

The health department notes a steady demand for booster shots, however, Gonzalez said, part of the reason for the Jan. 6 clinic.

Contact tracing changes

Earlier this week, the IDPH announced that the state model of contact tracing would be evolving into an automated system: Those who receive a positive result from a COVID-19 test will receive an automated text alerting them to next steps for notifying close contacts.

It’s part of a plan, according to the IDPH, to centralize contact tracing and case investigation across the state. That means local health department staff won’t be tasked with tracing exposure points for every single case as they did before.

That means it’s up to the person who’s contracted the virus to let others around them know they might’ve been exposed, Gonzalez said.

When someone tests positive – using a lab test not an at-home test – they’ll receive the following text from the State Surge Center: “IDPH COVID: There is important info for you. Call 312-777-1999 or click: https://dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance/confirmed-or-possible-covid-19.html

“The link will take you to a website full of information on case investigation and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine,” Gonzalez said. “It will also instruct you that you should be looking back 48 hours to determine who might be close contacts. So it’s really putting it on the individual for and providing information for what they need to take appropriate steps.”

Gonzalez said there will also be an option for someone to phone a call center and be walked through the process by another person if they need help.

“What this means for us is we will pivot and continue to focus on large outbreaks and on those big risk populations like schools, daycares and other congregate settings,” Gonzalez said. “So we’ll continue to work very closely with K-12 schools, longterm and congregate care through mitigation strategies during periods of high transmission.”

What happens if you test positive with an at-home test kit? Those cases don’t get reported to the health department, Gonzalez said.

“So our numbers aren’t as high as they would be if those were counted,” she said.

Gonzalez said it’s important for people to know when an at-home test kit is appropriate.

“If you are symptomatic and you take an at-home test kit, it’s very reliable,” she said. “But if you’re not symptomatic, just taking it to go gather, it’s not as sensitive as a PCR test could be. I think it’s being used as much or maybe even more for those who are doing screening testing and that does present some challenges. Wait about five days before you test [if exposed] because your viral load probably wont be high enough to detect. But in the meantime you should be quarantining.”