Wisconsin contact tracing crumbling as caseload grows

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- All of Friday's 7,777 new cases will be added to overwhelmed public health departments. Their contact tracers will need to call the people who've tested positive, and then call the people they've been around.

With so many people testing positive every day, health department can't keep up, and have begun rationing their contact tracing calls.

"We were overwhelmed back in March," said Racine Health Officer Dottie-Kay Bowersox.

She said 40 percent of tests this week have come back positive in her city, meaning the department has to call 680 people.

"They're not concerned about their neighbor or the person next door. There's a party, they want to go to it, they went to it, and by God they're going to do it," said Bowersox.

She said she needs 20 more contact tracers.

"There's not enough hours in the day to be able to go through and take a look at all the positives, and then in turn do the contact tracing on them," said Bowersox.

Like others across the state, her department is now limiting who it calls. People 65 years and older first, followed by kids 18 and under. That leaves everyone else waiting longer.

"There's a bottleneck, contact tracers, there's only so many, and a health department as a result can only handle so many cases," said UW Madison Associate Professor Ajay Sethi.

He said fewer contact tracing investigations mean fewer chances at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

"You can stop at least that one chain of transmission," said Sethi.

People who test positive can use a website to tell people they've been exposed. Both Bowersox and Sethi said unless more people in Wisconsin start taking COVID-19 seriously, the disease will keep spreading.

"It seems like it can't go faster, but actually it can," said Sethi.

People who get tested should quarantine themselves until they know the result. People who get a call from a contact tracer should answer their questions.

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