When a DeKalb County resident tests positive for COVID-19, here's what happens next

Public health forum details COVID-19 testing in DeKalb County

Tents near the emergency entrance to Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital Wednesday in Dekalb.
Tents near the emergency entrance to Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital Wednesday in Dekalb.

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DeKALB – New information shared by the DeKalb County Health Department details how the department tracks local COVID-19 cases, how first responders are given the address of residents with known cases and why tests aren’t available to the large majority.

Health department spokesperson Melissa Edwards also said the department no longer will share new daily COVID-19 case counts with local media, and instead will rely on daily website updates and a department newsletter.

“This is something we’ve had to adopt quickly for those who don’t have social media or read the paper,” Edwards said.

As part of a monthly STEM forum hosted by Northern Illinois University, county health officials gathered virtually April 1 for an informational session about the coronavirus in DeKalb County and steps health care workers are taking to ensure the spread is mitigated and social distancing guidelines are adhered to.

How a DeKalb County case
is identified

Every morning, the DeKalb County Health Department receives daily updates from the Illinois Department of Public Health’s surveillance system with the newest daily totals: how many more have tested positive for COVID-19, where they live, if there have been any reported deaths (none yet in DeKalb County).

Then the local health department begins the tedious task of tracking close contacts of the patient, to tell them to quarantine, too.

Quarantine means staying home, limiting interaction with others, only going out if necessary and taking steps to social distance. Isolation, mandated for COVID-19 patients, means total cut-off from close contact of anyone in an effort to stop further spread, DCHD officials said.

DCHD Nurse Practitioner Cindy Graves implored the 6-foot, for 10 minutes mantra: you’re more likely to contract the virus if you’re less than 6 feet from someone for 10 or more minutes. Likewise, social distancing, assuming you’ve got the virus if you experience symptoms (or don’t) and regularly cleaning surfaces are the best line of defense, she said.

“If they were in a grocery store, we don’t have to worry about that because the chance of somebody being less than 6 feet for more than 10 minutes at a grocery store are very slim,” said Cindy Graves, nurse practitioner for the county health department.

The IDPH uses the Illinois National Electronic Disease Surveillance System to track exposure information on people who’ve recorded positive tests, Graves said.

Contact with the confirmed patient is made by a local health department official, who works with the person to craft a timeline for when their symptoms showed up to determine who else may have been exposed. Those people are in turn notified and told to quarantine.

If the patient is hospitalized, an infection control practitioner from Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital works to oversee their care and release them into home isolation if the time comes.

Anyone whose household member has tested positive for COVID-19, awaiting tests, or feeling symptoms should assume they, too, have the virus and isolate at home, Graves said.

Drive-thru testing is being limited to high-risk patients, those with underlying health conditions, health care workers and first responders only. If you’ve got mild symptoms or your doctor tells you to self-isolate without a test, you should follow their direction.

“It kind of gets confusing for people because they might go ‘Well, am I diagnosed with it? Or am I not’ and the answer is maybe,” Graves said.

Tracking local COVID-positive

Graves broke down three categories for how public health officials clarify coronavirus cases: persons under investigation, meaning those awaiting test results or experiencing mild symptoms; confirmed positive meaning patients who were diagnosed via lab-confirmed test results; and presumptive positives, meaning a spouse, roommate or regular close contact who may live with the patient confirmed to have COVID-19.

Presumptive positives will not be tested, however, due to the fact that public health officials would have already ordered them to quarantine due to close contact. And to save test kits for those in dire need.

It’s a pandemic that’s brought special challenges to the way residents do their jobs and go about their everyday lives. A stay-at-home order has been extended through April.

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato said contrary to public belief, local health departments have the authority to mandate and enforce an individual’s quarantine. If it’s not followed, the courts can step in.

“There is due process here,” Amato said.

However, first responders still need to do their jobs, Graves said.

To minimize chances of police and firefighters contracting the disease, health officials provide a confidential list of addresses to countywide police and fire departments so they’re aware of where a person who’s tested positive lives, to more safely respond to a 911 call at the home if necessary.

“It’s tagged by address only, once the quarantine is set,” Graves said. “One the isolation time has passed, they take it out of the system. It’s a general alert, so we do not distinguish between someone who’s just waiting for results or someone who is positive.”

Does that blur the line between public responsibility and respecting a person’s privacy? Graves said it’s a balance.

“We try to make every effort to notify [a positive patient] that this is the process, tell them what information we’re sharing, so they’re aware it’s not something that’s covert,” she said. “They understand we’re just trying to protect everyone.”

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