Area health departments falling behind on contact tracing due to COVID-19 surge

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PORT WASHINGTON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A local health department says the recent surge in cases has contributed in them falling behind with contact tracing. Up until last week, the health department was able to keep up.

The Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department says ideally they’d like to get in contact with a COVID-19 positive person within a 24-48 hour time frame, but are now two days behind for the first time this pandemic.

“After the weekend, we just have too many cases, so we’re still able to contact all of our positives but we’re really not able to contact close contacts,” said Kirsten Johnson, director and health officer of the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department.

Kirsten Johnson says with the surge they’ve now transitioned into asking COVID-19 positive community members to reach out to their close contacts, something the health department’s contact tracers used to do.

“It’s critical that when someone’s contacted by someone who’s positive as a close contact that they quarantine for 14 days—it’s really the only way we’re going to slow this down,” says Johnson.

According to Wisconsin DHS, Washington and Ozaukee counties have a high COVID-19 positive rate, with anywhere from 2,500 to nearly 3,400 cases per 100,000 people. Johnson says their positivity rate is now at 14-percent.

“At least once a week we have a day that beats our highest day from the previous week,” adds Johnson.

Contact tracers falling behind is affecting a number of counties in the state.

“With this many new cases each day, our contact tracers are overwhelmed,” said Andrea Palm, secretary-designee, Wisconsin Dept. of Health Services.

Palm says please isolate if you test positive.

“Please help our contact tracers by calling your own contacts and encouraging them to get tested and to quarantine,” adds Palm.

“If there’s a place that we can arrive at where people are not gathering together or not at close quarters together then we know that that’s an effective way to interrupt transmission,” said Dr. Nasia Safdar, medical director of infection control at UW Health.

People who test positive should reach out to those they’ve been in close contact with 48 hours from the time of test or symptoms develop. Johnson suggests using a website called TellYourContacts.org.

“I fear that we’ve passed a point where, in public health -- and this is an uncomfortable space for us -- where we’re no longer able to have an impact at the population level, we’re really just trying to help individuals to stop the spread,” Johnson says.

“Given the surge that we’re already witnessing, it seems that now would be the time to really hunker down and limit non-essential activities,” adds Dr. Safdar.

Johnson says they don’t know how many more contact tracers they’ll need, but are looking to hire at least five more on top of the 54 they’ve hired since the pandemic began.

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