As the novel coronavirus continues its spread, one of the most important tools public health workers have at their disposal to slow the virus is contact tracing — the process of identifying and quarantining every individual that may have been exposed to a lab-confirmed positive.
Any delays in the process of contact tracing limits the ability of public health to control the spread of the virus.
In the last weeks of September, COVID-19 cases in Price County began to quickly rise from the low numbers the county had seen over the summer.
In the seven-day period between Sept. 24-30, Price County had 68 new positives for an average of just under 10 people testing positive per day. According to Price County Public Health, each positive was averaging approximately six close contacts.
That made for as many as 60 new Price County residents being exposed to the virus per day.
On Sept. 28, Public Health Officer Michelle Edwards told the Review that due to the rising number of cases and limited number of employees at the county health department, contact tracing was running as much as three days behind.
At that time, the department had four employees, including Edwards — all working approximately 10 hour days, seven days a week, according to Edwards.
As of Wednesday, Price County had 67 active cases and public health was monitoring over 240 close contacts.
In an interview on Monday, Edwards clarified that much of what the department was running behind on was data entry — not the actual work of tracing and contacting individuals.
Yet, during that time period in late September, Price County was meeting the state’s standards for contact tracing approximately 80% of the time, according to Edwards, noting this was actually better than many other Wisconsin counties.
Prior to the spike in cases, Price County was meeting state standards 100% of the time, according to Edwards.
During the past week, Price County Public Health has hired two additional limited term employees to assist with contact tracing, and about three county employees from other departments are being trained to assist in data entry.
Edwards told the Review on Monday that public health employees are still working long hours as training is still underway, but she expects the new staff should be sufficient to tackle the work, provided case numbers stay consistent and do not continue to rise.
The process of contact tracing
When a person has symptoms of COVID-19 and is tested, they are told by their physician to quarantine until test results are received.
Once test results are received, they are sent to the local public health department. If the test has come back positive, the local public health department aims to contact the positive individual within 24 hours. Working backwards, public health determines a rough timeline for when that person first became contagious. The person is then asked to provide the names of anyone they came in close contact with during the time they were likely contagious.
A close contact is defined as any individual who spent 15 or more accumulative minutes within six feet or less of a contagious person.
Public health then aims to contact each of those contacts within 48 hours, informing them that they were in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. These contacts are then referred for testing, and are directed to quarantine until test results are received.
Hospitalizations increasing in Price County
Hospitalizations in the county doubled on Monday from the week prior, going from seven to 14. Public Health reported that locally, six people went to the hospital over the weekend and were either admitted or transferred.
As of Monday, of those individuals hospitalized in Price County, there was a 50-50 split between male and female patients and all fell between the ages of 50 and 89. People aged 50-59 accounted for 29% of Price County hospitalizations; age 60-69 accounted for 14%; age 70-79 for 21%; and age 80-89 for 36%.
The county has now had a total of 209 confirmed cases of the virus, 147 of which have recovered. According to information released by Price County Public Health on Oct. 2, the majority of cases have occurred in Phillips (68 cases at the time), with Park Falls following with 29 cases, Ogema with 13, Prentice with 10, Fifield with seven, Kennan with six, Brantwood/Tripoli area with five, Catawba with three, and Price County residents with addresses in Butternut or Rib Lake accounted for two each.
“Case numbers will only go down if people limit their contacts — especially now with the increased number of cases,” said Edwards. “There are still things people can do — just do them with caution. Wear a mask, wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, and keep your distance.”