Wisconsin Plans To Increase Contact Tracing By The Tens Of Thousands

Apr 29, 2020

State of Wisconsin officials are providing some details of a plan to contact more people who have tested positive for COVID-19, and even contacting people as they take the COVID-19 test, before results are in. But some Milwaukee-area health officials appear to question part of the proposal.

Contact tracing, health officials say, can help determine how people contracted COVID-19 and learn with whom people connect as a way to potentially reduce the spread of the disease.

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The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) says there's now the ability to test 11,000 people a day in the state. DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk says even just interviewing the positive cases could be a huge task.

"Just think about what we're aiming to do. If we conduct 85,000 tests per week, and 10% are positive, as we're seeing now, we will need to interview 8,500 people. And if each of them has five contacts, that's another 42,500 people to call. We're not there yet, but we're making progress,” Willems Van Dijk told the news media on Tuesday.

She says the state is even looking at starting the tracing when the COVID-19 test is taken.

"So that everyone who has a test knows ‘I need to isolate until I get this test result.’ We know we're getting all the good contact information to be in touch with that person, once we have the test results, so it's moving at much earlier in the process,” Willems Van Dijk said.

She says the goal is to have 1,000 state or local health department employees conducting the tracing. Willems Van Dijk says about 390 people have been trained or transferred into the work, or into training, by the state. The state did not say how many local employees are doing tracing, other than stating health departments are adding resources and staff, and to say the state is working to get updated information from local officials.

Willems Van Dijk says the state is  also considering adding vendors who could reach out online or via text.

The possibility that people could initially be contacted when taking a COVID-19 test, and asked to isolate for a few days, seems to concern Milwaukee County Emergency Management Medical Director Jack Weston.

“To certainly start isolating everybody who has a test, I mean, we're all staying at home now. To presume everybody who has a test is positive, would not be the best direction to go,” Weston told reporters in a separate briefing.

Weston says it does make sense to offer educational counseling when people are tested and tell them when they might be contacted with the result.

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