Lack of information and the growing volume of cases make it more challenging to contain coronavirus.
As the number of people contracting COVID-19 across Wisconsin continues to rise, tracking down everyone who people infected with the virus have been in contact with is becoming increasingly difficult, county health department directors said.
Their challenge comes not only from the growing volume of cases, they said, but from people infected with the coronavirus being less than forthcoming about where they’ve been and who they’ve been around.
The number of people testing positive for the virus has grown rapidly across the state since mid-May, when the Wisconsin Department of Health Services safer-at-home order was lifted after the state Supreme Court overturned an extension of that order.
Since then, most businesses have resumed operations, and public interactions and gatherings have become more commonplace. As of Thursday, there were 63,206 confirmed cases in Wisconsin and 1,018 deaths, according to the Department of Health Services.
There are over 1,500 contact tracers in the state, DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm said during a Thursday call with reporters. About 230 of those are state-level employees, while municipal and county health departments employ more than 1,100. The state has 182 contact tracers to help out local health departments experiencing surges, Palm said.
Despite the wealth of tracers, local health department employees told UpNorthNews there have been significant challenges tracking the virus as it spreads.
In Eau Claire County, tracking people who have had contact with someone infected with COVID-19 — referred to as contact tracing — has become increasingly difficult as cases of the virus have become more commonplace, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.
The county set records for coronavirus cases each of the past two weeks — 83 in the seven days prior to Monday and 71 the previous week. With 16 new cases on Wednesday the county reached 629, with four deaths attributed to COVID-19.
“As case numbers go up, that certainly stresses the public health system” and its ability to do contact tracing work as quickly as possible to prevent further spread of the virus, Giese said. “We are not getting to some of the investigations as quickly as we would like.”
Staff doing contact tracing work have been able to track down 92 percent of county residents who test positive within 24 hours, according to new county statistics released Wednesday. They have been able to reach 88 percent of those cases’ close contacts within 48 hours.
“We need to be able to quickly get to our cases and contacts,” Giese said during a news conference Wednesday, noting contact tracing is made more challenging by people not returning phone calls from health department staff.
Quickly getting in touch with people who are infected is only part of the battle. Lindsay Sarauer, who holds various roles related to COVID-19 at the Kenosha County Health Department, said contact tracers there have been incredibly successful getting in touch with people who test positive, but fewer and fewer people are giving truthful answers to questions about where they’ve been and who they’ve been in contact with.
“We’re seeing, ‘No, I didn’t go anywhere. I’ve never been to the grocery store. I don’t have anybody in my household. I don’t have a significant other,’ or things like that,” Sarauer said. “So, they’re taking contact tracing and quarantining into their own hands instead of us giving them the guidance that’s needed from a health department aspect.”
Decreasing compliance with contact tracers is an issue that causes wider public health concern, Sarauer said. Cases in Kenosha County have steadily increased over the course of the pandemic. As of Thursday, the county had 2,718 confirmed cases and 60 deaths, according to local data.
“It makes it hard to contain (when people aren’t honest), because we know it’s community spread and everywhere you go it could be there,” she said.
St. Croix County Health Department Director Kelli Engen told UpNorthNews two previously retired workers from her department were temporarily rehired, along with five others, to try to keep up with contact tracing and other efforts related to the coronavirus.
COVID-19 cases, and the number of people potentially infected to contact, have grown rapidly in that northwestern Wisconsin county, stretching her staff to the breaking point, Engen said. As of Wednesday 524 positive cases had been reported in her county, along with five deaths.
“It is a stretch, and our biggest fear is what will happen when school is back in session in the fall,” Engen said. “If you look at other states where school has started again, you’re seeing many outbreaks, and if that happens here I fear we won’t be able to keep up.”
Chippewa County Health Department Director Angela Weideman said her department has been able to keep up with contact tracing, but doing so is challenging on days when there are a relatively high number of cases.
On those days, she said, staff members who don’t normally do contact tracing are pulled in to make calls and track down potential cases. Each positive case in her county has an average of between six and seven contacts, Weideman said.
“I think the staff to positive cases ratio matters,” she said. “Health departments with big numbers (of cases), I am sure they are struggling, as are really small departments with average to high numbers.”
Contact tracing in Chippewa County could get more difficult. On Wednesday the county reported 29 new cases during the previous week, up from 15 the week before that. The county has recorded 252 positive COVID-19 cases and no deaths.