Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st) failed to convince his colleagues in the House to add $100 billion for local organizations to do contact tracing and testing in areas hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, Rush was a yes vote when the House passed the latest pandemic aid package worth $3 trillion by a 208 – 199 margin on May 15.
"I am admittedly concerned that the provisions included in the HEROES Act — specifically, the contact tracing provisions – do not go far enough to protect African Americans and other communities that are being most impacted by this virus," he said in a statement. "However, I remain committed to working with leadership to strengthen these policies, which are fundamental to safely reopening the economy.”
Rush did, however, praise the inclusion of his measure to protect prisoners from price-gouged telephone calls in the legislation.
In May 12 letters to the House Democratic leadership and the chairs of the Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American congressional caucuses, Rush said the testing and tracing provisions in the HEROES Act are "woefully inadequate … not big enough, not bold enough, and most importantly, not grassroots and inclusive enough."
"As we seek to draft policies to help our constituents, and particularly those at the highest risk, fight this deadly disease, I am concerned that the African American community is being overlooked and largely forgotten in favor of affluent, White communities," Rush wrote, arguing that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should be "instructed to provide funding to medically underserved areas and hotspots first."
The HEROES Act includes $75 billion for contact tracing. Rush's proposed legislation, the COVID-19 TRACE Act — which he urged Democratic leaders to incorporate in their bill — included provisions for mobile testing, door-to-door outreach, prioritizing services in medically underserved communities and hotspots, and the promotion of local hiring by the community- and school-based health centers, hospitals, nonprofits, churches and post-secondary institutions marshaled to do the work.
Contact tracing is typically utilized in the United States to remotely notify individuals who have been in close contact with diseases like tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and syphilis to notify them to get tested and isolate so that the disease does not spread. Public health officials have argued for its adoption in the fight against COVID-19 alongside social distancing, widespread testing and isolating infected individuals.
In Illinois, officials have suggested that more than 3,800 workers will be needed to do contact tracing; Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the total cost for an Illinois program would be $80 million. Oakton Community College in northern Cook County touted its online course for public health contact tracing, saying contact tracers "work from the safety of their own homes." (The Oakton Educational Foundation covered tuition for all students, but enrollment is closed as all sections are filled.)
Over email, Christine Ekenga, a public health professor at Washington University in St. Louis, observed the African American community's longstanding health disparities and distrust of the health care system and said public health and medical practitioners "have tried to overcome this distrust by engaging in partnerships with community-based organizations."
"So, yes, involving community-based organizations in contact tracing and testing could be an effective public health approach to stopping the spread. However, effective contact tracing depends of public trust and cooperation. Also, there should be measures in place to protect privacy," she wrote.
"As for phone vs in-person: This pandemic has also exposed technology disparities. Some low-income individuals may not have access to a land line or consistent cell phone service," she continued. "A multi-method (e.g. mix of phone, in-person, and online) contact strategy would be the most cost-effective approach to reach hard-to-contact individuals."
Asked for comment about Rush's proposal, Rep. Robin Kelly — who represents most of East Hyde Park in Congress, chairs the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust and voted for the HEROES Act — recounted the importance of implementing contact tracing in the nation's most impacted communities.
"These efforts must include strategies that are culturally competent, effectively reach high-risk populations, protect and proactively communicate privacy protections and do not further spread the virus," Kelly said in a statement. "I will continue working with my colleagues on the Energy and Commerce Committee to enact the best possible funding mechanism to put boots on the ground in communities, like South Shore, ASAP."
South Shore, which is in Kelly's district, is the neighborhood most impacted by COVID-19 in Chicago. Per the South Side Weekly's tracker as of April 18, 87 deaths have been reported among neighborhood residents.