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Counties in need of more contact tracing staff as testing ramps up

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58)--- As testing ramps up cities, counties and state health agencies are also ramping up contact tracing to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The CDC says contact tracing is when public health staff work with coronavirus patients to help them identify who they’ve come in contact with while infectious. Health staff then contacts the people identified by the patient and give them guidelines to limit spread.

The CDC recommend communities scale up and train a large number of contact tracers to stop the transmission of COVID-19.

The Upjohn Institute of Employment Research says there’s not enough.

“The range of the number that I’ve seen for the recommended number from public health experts is anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 (contact tracers) for the country as a whole,” said Brad Hershbein, Senior Economist for the Upjohn Institute of Employment Research.

Hershbein expects Milwaukee will need hundreds of contact tracers, and time is of the essence.

“COVID-19 is asymptomatic for quite some time, it’s important that as early as possible we’re able to identify people that may have been exposed so we can isolate them and test them,” said Dr. John Raymond, President and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

In nearly seven weeks, positive cases in Milwaukee went from one to more than 2,400.

“Obviously this has ramped up incredibly quickly,” said Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee. “There is a need for contact tracing and that’s something that’s important as we try to put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

“Typically it’s done by trained health workers often working at the county or state level,” says Hershbein.

Mayor Barrett says the state has helped, giving the city 20 people to assist with contact tracing. The city has also reached out to retired health care workers and its public schools for help.

“As we’re ramping up and trying to get this expanded rapidly, that’s where we’re working internally with other city employees to see if they can do some of that work,” Mayor Barrett adds.

“Best case scenario, (contact tracers) can kind of figure it out for any infected person an hour or two, in other cases it can take a day or longer,” said Hershbein.

Some contact tracers work remotely, but in other cases they may be interviewing people while social distancing.

With a high unemployment rate right now, Hershbein says people are looking to become a contact tracer.

“The downside is in not many cases are state or county health departments paying people to be contact tracers that aren’t already employees,” says Hershbein.

Milwaukee is not the only one to up contact tracing, on Thursday Waukesha County started the onboarding process to find more contact tracers. They’ve got 30 contact tracers so far.

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