Wisconsin chief medical officer discusses COVID-19 contact tracing, upcoming cold and flu season

Coronavirus

Wisconsin's chief medical officer and state epidemiologist spoke with WFRV Local 5 about contact tracing, COVID-19 testing, and the upcoming cold and flu season

(WFRV) – As the school year and cold and flu season near, the coronavirus continues to be at the forefront of many minds. Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ Chief Medical Officer of Communicable diseases spoke with WFRV Local 5 about the role of contact tracers, testing, and the upcoming cold and flu season.

What is contract tracing and how important is it to health officials?

During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in Wisconsin, state and local health officials emphasized the need for contact tracers.

Dr. Westergaard explains that contact tracing is largely done by contact tracers with local health departments. Recently, a new state department contact tracing team was developed.

“I would say that all of those organizations doing that contact tracing have a lot on their plate and are in need of more support,” he adds. “If individuals are interested in that, they really need to contact local health departments and find out if they’re hiring and what sort of assistance they’re looking for.”

Dr. Westergaard says that there is no public health training, degree, or background required to become a contact tracer.

“People that do that kind of work well have good communication skills, good listening skills, who can present themselves professionally, convince people that they’re sharing information that can be kept in confidence, and to build trust.”

In Wisconsin, there is a database that health officials can use which tracks all of the positive cases. The role of contact tracers then, according to Dr. Westergaard, is to have a conversation which each person that tests positive within 24 to 48 hours of them receiving their results. Through that conversation, a contact tracer is able to identify where a person that tested positive has been and who they may have been in close contact with so public health officials can understand who may be at risk of getting COVID-19.

“It’s not always possible because people are busy, people don’t always answer their phone. In a surge of cases, there could be a backlog,” Dr. Westergaard explains.

Wisconsin officials have seen a number of large gatherings recently, including in Northeast Wisconsin. Dr. Westergaard says that, in the event that someone with COVID-19 attends a gathering, it can make contact tracing more difficult.

“It makes the whole system a little harder when the volume of cases get high,” Dr. Westergaard explains, adding that it’s important for contact tracers to reach those who have tested positive quicker to understand who else may be at risk.

Contact tracing become even more difficult for rural areas that may not have as many resources.

“They can do their work well when there’s a certain volume, but when that volume doubles or triples or quadruples, they can get behind pretty quickly,” he says. In turn, if multiple days go by in which contact tracers can’t make reach the people they need to contact, “it makes the whole effort a little less effective.”

“That’s another reason why these community-wide efforts, the limiting gatherings and the mask-wearing, to try to decrease the overall number of people who become exposed to the virus are so important and compliment contact tracing.”

How will testing be impacted by the upcoming cold and flu season?

Over the last few months, Wisconsin has expanded its COVID-19 testing capacity. In early May, labs across Wisconsin were able to perform about 13,800 tests each day. Now, three months later, Wisconsin is able to perform about 24,000 tests a day.

Dr. Westergaard says that while testing has expanded, it might not be enough as we enter the cold and flu season and send kids back to school.

“In the fall, a lot more people get cold and flu-like symptoms. For this to go really well, we really need to have everyone with mild symptoms – even the cold symptoms that are pretty common – to get tested to know whether they have COVID-19.”

He continues, saying, “I don’t know that we have enough tests in all the right places to do that at a high level.” Dr. Westergaard says DHS is working to get labs to do more tests, make everyone aware of the different kinds of tests that are coming out, and to streamline the process so people are able to get their test results back quicker.

According to DHS, a person that gets tested for coronavirus is counted just once, no matter how many tests they have taken. For example, if you are tested three times and each result comes back positive, you will only be counted once.

With many Wisconsinites practicing safe COVID-19 habits like wearing a mask and social distancing, Dr. Westergaard says it could have a positive impact on this year’s cold and flu season.

“An optimistic view is that all of the things we’re doing to try to prevent COVID-19 could be helpful in preventing the transmission of influenza. It’s certainly conceivable, I hope it’s the case, that there’s some additional benefit that we don’t have as bad of a flu season. It’s very hard to predict though. Every year the influenza epidemic looks a little bit differently.”

DHS says that during the 2018-2019 flu season, 17,210 cases of the flu were reported in Wisconsin. As of August 5, over 56,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the state.

As the cold and flu season moves in, Dr. Westergaard is encouraging Wisconsinites that if you’re experiencing symptoms you don’t usually experience, it’s probably a good time to get tested.

“I think the lesson should be to have a low threshold,” he explains. “Anything that’s out of the ordinary – if you’re somebody who gets an itchy nose and sneezing in August and September every year but you don’t have a headache or a sore throat with that, clearly if you get new symptoms that you don’t normally have, that should be a sign.”

Dr. Westergaard says that the goal is to be able to have tests easily available and that everyone “feels they can and should get them with really a low threshold of symptoms.”

“I wouldn’t say that we’re there everywhere, but that’s really our goal is to be able to get that information about COVID testing to people when they have symptoms that are concerning.”

If you or someone you know is interested in getting tested for coronavirus, contact your local health department or medical provider.

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