Wisconsin health officials explain contact tracing and how it tackles COVID-19

Posted at 7:24 PM, Apr 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-14 20:24:50-04

Public health officials across southeast Wisconsin believe a process known as contact tracing is one of the paths out of the coronavirus pandemic.

Contact tracing is a process used to identify those exposed to a disease. It has been used for diseases like measles, mumps, and now COVID-19.

"It also helps us identify what the scope and scale of spread would be," said Ann Christiansen, Health Director and Health Officer for the North Shore Health Department.

It starts with a person who has tested positive. Christiansen says the individual fills out a form detailing all of the people and places they were in contact with starting two days before their symptoms.

"From there, we talk to the case again. Now you were with these individuals, what was that sort of contact like? Was it that you were in less than 6 feet for greater than 10 minutes," Christiansen said.

Public health officials contact tracing measures

The health officer explained these questions determine if people were exposed at a low, medium, or high risk. The risk level determines the response, which ranges from monitoring symptoms to quarantine to testing.

Evan Gorr, Public Nurse with the Kenosha County Division of Health, illustrated contract tracing on a whiteboard. It resembles a family tree, but this one starts with one positive case of COVID-19.

Gorr showed from the one positive case they reach out to the individual's workplace, family, and any person or place they had contact with for more than 10 minutes. They help employers notify and screen workers.

"You could get like five new ones off of just one positive case, that's why it kind of branches out. We are luckily seeing a lot less of contact investigations because people are following that safe-at-home procedure," said Gorr.

Kenosha County Division of Health also shares handouts on how to clean, what to do, and tracking symptoms after a confirmed COVID-19 case.

Contact tracing sounds simple, but it can be challenging on many fronts that include relying on a person to remember all of the places and people they had contact with for a certain period. Another challenge is getting information for the people who need to be contacted and then successfully reaching them.

"Sometimes we don't get a phone call back from clients after multiple attempts. And at that point, we either send them a letter or try and visit them face-to-face, but that is the biggest challenge is just getting a hold of these people," said Gorr.

Gorr said some people are afraid to answer their phone. He wants the community to know public health's goal is to help people understand the risks of COVID-19 and know when to seek medical care and reach out to the local health department.

Since the North Shore Health Department has a smaller staff, it brought on extra staff, including school nurses and employees from the North Shore Fire/Rescue to help with the process.

Kirsten Johnson, Director and Health Officer at the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department, says contact tracing helps contain outbreaks and identify more cases.

"I go to the example of long-term care facilities. We've had a number of outbreaks in long-term care facilities that we've been able to stop because we were able to identify the people who are positive and the people around them and get those people quarantined," said Johnson.

Johnson went to a whiteboard to show how contact tracing revealed how 11 positive COVID-19 cases stemmed from one person who went to an event out of state.

Ozaukee County official details contact tracing

"It's really the only way we can slow this down and stop it, is if we know who people have been in contact with," said Johnson.

"Public health as a system is trying to respond to this, and it is important to know that the contact tracing is one of those pieces that have to be in place and be done effectively for us to be able to reopen the state safely, said Johnson.

Johnson, Gorr, and Christiansen agreed that social distancing and the safer-at-home order are making a difference in limiting the virus' spread.

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