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DHS at capacity for contact tracers, local health departments scale back tracing efforts

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MADISON (WKOW) -- State and local health departments are in dire need of critical resources known as contact tracers which help track the spread of COVID-19 in communities.

Health departments make phone calls to those who may have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, but now those calls are not being made as frequently as the state's top health official says they don't have enough contract tracers.

"The state is at capacity," said Andrea Palm, Secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services during a media briefing with reporters.

Typically the Wisconsin Department of Health Services deploys contact tracers to local health departments who are overwhelmed and in need of assistance in contacting people who may have been exposed to the virus.

But without enough staff at the state level, their resources are limited to help other communities, said Palm. Currently, DHS has 283 state employees dedicated to contact tracing efforts and by next week that number will increase to 340 as about 100 new employees will be hired on Monday.

Across the state, there are more than 1,200 individuals who investigate and track positive cases on the state and local level, but some local health departments worry as cases spike contact tracing efforts won't be enough to prevent the spread.

Several local health departments in Southern Wisconsin are overwhelmed and currently don't have enough contact tracers to keep up with an influx of COVID-19 cases.

Sauk County said they are on entering a "crisis mode" because they are unable to call COVID-19 contacts.

"They are likely not going to get a call from us," said Jessie Phalen, the nurse manager for Sauk County Public Health Department.

If you test positive, your local health department will still reach out, but Phalen said they don't have enough resources to get in touch with others you may have spread it too.

This leaves communities at times unable to get to the source of who else may have been infected or where the spread began.

Rock and Jefferson counties are also struggling to keep up with contact tracing efforts and are relying on community members to step up and reach out to anyone they may have spread the virus to.

Gail Scott, Director and Health Officer of the Jefferson County Health Department said DHS has a checklist to help people contact others they may have exposed.

"If people tell us they can contact their contacts and they understand it, we send them written information they can use," said Scott.

As Wisconsin ranks third in the country for new cases some experts predict the state will need upwards to 2,000-3,000 contact tracers because it's a critical tool to prevent someone from spreading it and at times without knowing it.

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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