A new Chicago inspector general report says former contact tracers had access to patient information after leaving their jobs. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson finds lapse in privacy policy, though city officials insist there was no unauthorized access of information.

More than a quarter of the city’s COVID-19 contact tracers who left their jobs as of early this year still had access to patient data for at least a month after their termination, an investigation from the city’s watchdog found.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s office investigated Chicago’s contact tracing program, which is run by an organization under contract with the city, and found the Chicago’ Department of Public Health “did not consistently remove terminated users’ access” to a system of tracking COVID-19 patients within seven days, which is a standard.

Of the almost 600 contact tracers hired last year, the report found 50 of those workers had been fired or resigned as of Feb. 15, 2021. While all of the departing workers should have had their access to a system with patient data cut off within 7 days, only 11 had the ability removed. A month later, more than a quarter of those contact tracers were still able to look at patient information, though city officials told investigators they believe none of the ex-employees tried to access records.

COVID-19 contact tracing, which involves interviewing people who test positive for the virus along with anyone they might have infected, is considered an important tool in fighting the pandemic. While the report found that the city’s tracing program, run by Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership and more than 30 community organizations, largely did a good job of protecting privacy and reducing cybersecurity risks, it said some oversight practices can be improved.

“Contact tracing will continue to play an integral part in tackling the current pandemic by helping to address and manage cases,” Ferguson said in a statement. “As part of its overall and ongoing work to protect communities from both disease transmission and cybersecurity risks, we encourage [the city] to continue to implement and update security needs as they develop.”

According to the health department’s response, included in the report, the city agreed to strengthen its oversight of the contact tracing system access and “will incorporate employment status reviews into its weekly check-ins with the community-based organizations that are in the corps. This will help ensure [the city] is notified when an employee has left the corps and enable the prompt termination of the employee’s access to the system,”

Contact tracers have described challenges getting people to talk to them about their exposure to the coronavirus, and the city program got off to a slow start.

In May 2020, the city issued a $56 million request for proposals to bolster its contact tracing. More than 30 community groups were picked by the workforce partnership group to train the trackers.

The city should also inform COVID-19 patients and contacts how long the city will retain their data, the report said.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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