Wisconsin needs 600 contact tracers

April 30, 2020

State making progress on hiring and training, but still short of 1,000-person goal.

COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days (left), heat map over life of outbreak (right). Images as of April 25th from Milwaukee County COVID-19

Expanding contact tracing is one of six key criteria identified in Governor Tony Evers’ Badger Bounce Back plan. The process, intended to contain the spread of a disease, is used to identify past contacts and alert people that they should be tested.

“Contact tracing is nothing new to public health people, we have been doing this for centuries,” said state Department of Health Services (DHS) Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk during a media briefing on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. The process begins with a case investigation and then transitions to contacting those that may have had contact with the individual.

But the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging local public health departments and the state is moving to help them. Evers’ plan calls for 1,000 contact tracers to ultimately be working on the outbreak. The bounce-back plan benchmark calls for anyone that tests positive to be interviewed within 24 hours and their contacts to be interviewed within 48 hours.

“It’s about isolating and boxing in the people with the virus rather than isolating and boxing in all of the people,” said Willems Van Dijk. “Testing alone is not enough to contain the virus.”

She said the department now has 259 contact tracers. “We are onboarding 78 more plus 50 who will start training this week,” said Willems Van Dijk. But if things stop there that would leave the state with 387 contact tracers, more than 600 short of the goal.

As testing grows and the disease spreads, the number of people needing to be contacted also grows exponentially. One new confirmed case can result in dozens of contacts.

“We are moving to contact everyone who has a test, even before they know the results,” she said. Part of scaling up includes exploring ways to conduct initial interviews via text message or the web.

She said the state is hiring people with public health experience — “people who are good with people, who can conduct an interview, who can be meticulous in terms of data collection,” said Willems Van Dijk. “We also need people with a sense of empathy. This is not an easy job right now.” She said contact tracers call people who are very ill or family members of those who passed away from the disease.

“We are also surrounding our contact tracers with people who have social service skills,” she said. That includes working to make sure people have the support they need to stay home when asked to, including the ability to get groceries or tend to other family members.

The Milwaukee Health Department has a team of 19 contact tracers currently. It refers cases it doesn’t have the capacity to handle to the state or nearby health departments. “MHD is working on significantly ramping up contact tracing capabilities and working with other city departments and outside organizations to onboard individuals dedicated to assisting with these efforts,” said a spokesperson.

The questions asked as part of the initial investigation will also change over time. One question — whether the individual voted in-person for the April 7th election — will be dropped on May 1st. A formal report on the number of individuals that tested positive and had exposure to a voting site will be released in May by MHD. Willems Van Dijk said Tuesday she did not have the latest figures on that statewide investigation.

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