Some Counties, Overwhelmed By COVID-19 Cases, Ask Patients To Help With Contact Tracing

Public Health Departments Implement 'Crisis Standards' For Contact Tracing Work

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COVID-19 contact tracers work at a Houston public health office.
Contact tracers work at Harris County Public Health contact tracing facility, Thursday, June 25, 2020, in Houston. David J. Phillip/AP Photo

COVID-19 contact tracing — the work of identifying and notifying those who have been in close contact with someone infected — is typically a job for health workers. But with caseloads rising and notification times lagging, some counties are asking those with positive COVID-19 results to help by telling those they might have infected.

On Wednesday, Chippewa County Public Health announced that county health officials will no longer be contacting all potential contacts of those who contract COVID-19, instead only contacting those who are deemed “high risk.” Those contacts include students and teachers, those who have visited bars or restaurants, health care workers, day care workers, and all household contacts.

The news comes after a spike in positive tests in the county. Currently, there are 272 active cases, according to local health data.

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La Crosse County is also asking those who tested positive for COVID-19, or were exposed to the coronavirus, to immediately isolate, regardless of whether they received a call from the health department.

Rock County described its decision to ask COVID-19 patients to help with notifying their potential contacts as “crisis standards” for contact tracing.

“Despite increased staffing and the assistance of the state contact tracing team, the number of people to be contacted has now exceeded the capacity of the Rock County Public Health Department,” Rock County Public Health Director Marie-Noel Sandoval said in a press release. “We are no longer able to conduct the same level of contact tracing that we would during a typical outbreak.”

The county’s crisis standards were suggested by state health officials, who have used social media to urge those infected to notify others they’ve been with for at least 15 minutes at close range, particularly indoors.

“We encourage everyone to be forthcoming. It’s really nobody’s fault. We know the virus is community wide,” said Lori Soderberg, a Rock County Public Health supervisor.

On Thursday, there were 1,030 estimated active cases in Rock County.

Public health officials say a reason for widespread COVID-19 infection, in addition to people not wearing masks and attending gatherings, is people lacking knowledge of who might be sick. Someone who comes down with COVID-19 might have interacted with as many as 15 people before being diagnosed, said Jacquie Cutts, public health nursing manager for the La Crosse County Health Department.

“So for the day we got 252 positive cases. Multiply that by a factor of 10,” Cutts said. “Our ability to make 2,700 phone calls in one day just doesn’t exist. Our goal in public health is to contact every case and contact them within 48 hours, but there are times when our capacity isn’t going to facilitate that.”

Chippewa County is looking at hiring additional contact tracers. La Crosse County tripled its contract tracers to 30 full-time-equivalent positions between June and September, Cutts said.

Rock County has 11 contact tracers and nine public health nurses, with more on way.

“Everyone is working days, nights and weekends to contact trace,” said Soderberg.

Even though local health departments have been building their capacity and adding staff, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services provides contact tracing help when local health departments request it.

DHS currently has 334 active contact tracers. An additional 100 contact tracers are still in training with 64 of them starting next week. Efforts are underway to hire 75 more contact tracers in early November, according to a DHS spokesperson.

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