contact tracing wisconsin
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The pandemic is quickly becoming out-of-control again as the reality of too many new cases meets the reality of too few health workers.

A surge in cases of COVID-19 across Wisconsin amid a shortage of public health workers is making tracking down people who may have been exposed to the virus increasingly challenging, and in some cases impossible, county health officers say. 

As the number of new virus cases has risen significantly since mid-July and is at levels not seen since January, county health departments report they are increasingly unable to alert people that they may have been in close contact with someone with the virus—commonly referred to as contact tracing—in a timely manner, or sometimes not at all.

On Wednesday, the Department of Health Services reported 3,436 new COVID-19 cases, the highest number since Jan. 7 and the first time the state surpassed 3,000 new daily cases since that date.

“There are so many cases in such a short amount of time. We don’t have the resources to handle that,” said Audrey Boerner, public information officer for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

In many cases, instead of calling COVID-19 close contacts themselves, health department staff said the rash of new cases has forced them to tell people who test positive for the virus to call the people they have been in contact with themselves. Many county health departments are using social media rather than personal outreach to notify the public of significant COVID-19 outbreaks as a means to reach as many people as quickly as possible. 

RELATED: Most Wisconsin School Districts Aren’t Requiring Masks. There Are Already Outbreaks.

Contact tracing, done in a timely manner, helps reduce COVID-19 transmission by alerting people who may have been in contact with someone who has the virus, thereby allowing them to limit their exposure to others. Conducting contact tracing when virus case numbers are relatively low is manageable, county health officers said, but isn’t possible when numbers climb to current levels. 

In Marathon County, the health department said in a statement its COVID-19 response teams “are critically over capacity and are looking to the community to follow the recommended guidance to stop the spread.” Health department staff will try to follow up with people who test positive for the virus and determine close contacts, but “the response may be delayed,” the statement says. 

Likewise, Pierce County Health Officer AZ Snyder said her department is overwhelmed by a surge of new COVID-19 cases. The county reported 34 positive tests for the week of Aug. 21, a total that grew to 121 new cases last week. More than 50 school students have tested positive since Sept. 1. 

“We’re doing our best to keep up with the illness spreading in our community, but we need help from schools, businesses, individuals and elected leaders to be successful this fall,” Snyder said in a statement

In too many cases, county health officers said, calls seeking information about people who may have been exposed aren’t answered, interrupting the notification process. 

“A large number of our contacts are positive, and we have people not answering [messages] or calling back,” said Angela Weideman, Chippewa County Health Department director. “We are doing our best, but it has gotten difficult.” 

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department hasn’t been able to keep up with contact tracing since late July, when the number of positive COVID-19 tests began to climb from a couple daily to 92 new cases Wednesday and 80 more Thursday.

Local health departments typically train school staff to do contact tracing in those settings, but a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in schools since the new year began has added to contact tracing demand, Boerner said. Along with people 65 and older, school-age children are deemed especially important cases because they have families at home who could become infected if exposed to the virus.

“We make those student cases a priority” for contact tracing, Boerner said.  

So far this school year, 414 Eau Claire Area School District students have been quarantined because of exposure to COVID-19 along with 34 positive cases, according to district figures. Schools across Wisconsin are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks as many districts don’t require face masks—against the advice of medical experts—after receiving pressure from Republican lawmakers and others who oppose masks and other virus mitigation measures. 

Higher COVID-19 case numbers are placing a stress on Wisconsin hospitals as well. Hospitals in some parts of the state are at capacity and are transferring patients to other locations with space. As of Thursday just 89 of 1,359 intensive care beds were available statewide, according to Wisconsin Hospital Association data.

“We have heard from our hospital partners that they are very full and nearing or at [patient] diversion status,” Boerner said. “It’s scary. It’s certainly not what we want to see.”