contact tracing wisconsin
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As cases continue to rise, large gatherings become more frequent, total contacts have grown considerably, taxing available staff to do that work, county health officers said.  

As Kelli Engen watched the number of coronavirus cases climb higher in St. Croix County, where she works as the county health department director, she knew she needed to enlist more help to slow the spread of the contagious virus. 

To do that work better, 12 new people have been added to Engen’s staff in recent weeks to work as contact tracers, personnel charged with tracking down all people who may have been exposed to those who test positive for COVID-19.  

Additional contact tracers are necessary, she said, as the number of people testing positive for the virus continues to climb. Currently St. Croix County is averaging about 25 new cases daily, and as of Tuesday 871 positive cases had been recorded. 

Those cases, she said, resulted in 2,833 close contacts, meaning lots of work for her staff finding them. 

“That is a lot of contacts,” Engen said. “When we looked at the numbers we were seeing and the direction this virus is heading, we knew we needed to add more people to do contact tracing.” 

Each time a positive test is recorded, contact tracers interview those who test positive to determine all people they may have had contact with in recent days, people who possibly have also contracted the virus. 

In some cases, Engen said, that number is only a few. But increasingly, she and other county health officers across Wisconsin told UpNorthNews, the number of possible contacts has grown significantly and sometimes tops 100 as people are congregating in larger groups and gathering more frequently, oftentimes without face masks and without practicing social distancing.   

Health officers in many of Wisconsin’s other counties report similar challenges keeping up with contact tracing, considered by public health officials as one of the keys to slowing the spread of COVID-19. As the number of cases continues to rise and large gatherings become more frequent, total contacts have grown considerably, taxing available staff to do that work, county health officers said.  

Difficulties finding contacts of those who may have been exposed to the virus means those possible cases go undetected longer, and some possible cases may not be contacted at all. That scenario, in turn, means more people who may be carrying the virus are unknowingly exposing others. 

“If we can’t conduct contact tracing in a timely manner, we’re in big trouble as a state,” Pierce County Health Department Director AZ Snyder said. 

According to a report by the Harvard Global Health Institute and Brown School of Public Health, Wisconsin has the highest rate in the nation of daily new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people during the previous week, with 45.7. Pierce County ranks near the top of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, at 92.2. 

Her department has been “overwhelmed” recently by a surge of COVID-19 cases, Snyder said, most associated with UW-River Falls. Last week alone nearly 200 new cases were reported, dwarfing the previous one-week high of 55 new cases. 

The county has recorded 415 confirmed cases of the virus, Snyder said, and another 240 are probable. A surge of cases at UW-River Falls prompted a switch on Friday to online-only coursework and having students shelter in place for two weeks. Statewide, 105,932 positive cases have been reported, including 1,762 new cases reported Wednesday, the fourth-highest daily number of new infections. There have been 1,259 deaths from the outbreak in Wisconsin.  

The virus is spreading beyond the UW-River Falls campus into the surrounding region, Snyder said, stretching her staff beyond its capacity to conduct contact tracing of possible cases within 24 hours. Six staff members were recently added to do that work, she said, and more are being trained. 

“It has become clear we will need many, many more (contact tracers),” she said. 

College surge

In Eau Claire County, 364 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week, 22 percent of the county’s total 1,650 cases, a number that has more than doubled in the past month. As cases have surged with the start of a new school year, Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said contact tracing is taking longer.

“Our ability to do the follow-up with cases and their close contacts has been enormously impacted by our drastically increasing number of cases,” Giese said, noting a month ago the county had 60 cases weekly.  

In addition, she said, the number of possible contacts related to positive cases of the virus is growing. While the safer-at-home order was in effect, that number typically was only a few, Giese said, but has increased significantly since the order was lifted in May and more people resumed congregating in groups.   

Wisconsin communities like Eau Claire that are home to University of Wisconsin System schools are among those currently experiencing the largest COVID-19 surges. The virus is spreading not only among students and staff on campuses but among off-campus students as well. In turn, those students are spreading the virus to others.

So far 233 UW-Eau Claire students have tested positive, including five new cases on Tuesday. At UW-Madison, 2,703 students and 49 staff have recorded positive tests, prompting university officials to announce earlier this month the quarantining of two residence halls and sorority and fraternity housing and a switch to online-only coursework to try to contain the virus. UW-La Crosse officials on Sept. 13 announced a switch to virtual-only education as they instituted a 14-day quarantining of campus. 

Contact tracing challenges are occuring in communities without universities too. On Monday the Marathon County Health Department issued a news release acknowledging it can’t keep up with contact tracing in a timely fashion as COVID-19 cases continue to grow there.  

People testing positive for the virus report coming into contact with relatively large numbers at social gatherings, “contributing to the increased spread in our community” the release states. 

“We are doing our best to keep up, but cases are coming in faster than we can respond,” county Public Information Officer Judy Burrows said.

Some people living in communities with growing COVID-19 numbers, particularly those with college campuses, said they’re worried about the virus spreading through the community. Lindsey Tompkins said she’s afraid to frequent downtown stores and areas near the university in her hometown of La Crosse. 

The county has experienced an explosion of cases recently and now totals 2,698 positive cases and 2 deaths. 

“When you look at these numbers, it makes you wonder if they’re ever going to go down,” she said.