The rise in COVID-19 positive cases in Douglas County is making it harder to achieve one of the tools public health officials have for curbing the spread — contact tracing.

In the last two weeks, the 14-day rate of infection has more than doubled in the county, from 52.4 new infections per 10,000 people on Nov. 4 to 113.1 on Nov. 18, according to an analysis of the Wisconsin Department Health Services' data.

During that period, 533 new cases were confirmed, more than one-third of all positive cases reported in Douglas County since the start of the pandemic in March.

Contact tracing is a public health tool routinely used to help stop the spread of infectious diseases. Once a positive case has been identified, public health nurses contact the individual with the result and conduct a lengthy interview to determine who the person had close contact with. A close contact is anyone who has spent 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of the individual.

Douglas County’s Public Health officer, Kathy Ronchi, estimates that 15 people for each case have to be contacted and advised to quarantine. The county has three public health nurses working full-time on contact-tracing, as well as four additional staff members who were hired specifically to contact trace. Other Health and Human Services staff members pitch in part-time.

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“It’s overwhelming, actually ... When we were getting 20 cases a week, we were able to stay on top of it,” Ronchi said. “But with that many cases a day, there’s just no way logistically to do it the way that we would like to do it.”

To help manage the load, Ronchi said the county health department relies on the state contact tracing team when they can’t reach someone in the first 24 hours.

That can present challenges when people don’t respond to the unfamiliar phone number. Some of those cases are sent back for her department to make another attempt.

Instead, the department is asking people who test positive for COVID-19 to reach out to their close contacts and provide them with information on isolation and quarantine.

“If they’re not comfortable doing that, we can do things differently," Ronchi said. "We also reach out to the businesses they’ve gone to … people need to take ownership of the choices they make.”

Douglas County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert said county leaders are worried about staff burnout. Public health employees have been working overtime, on weekends and have not been able to use their vacation time.

“One of the conversations I’ve been having with people involved is that we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Liebaert said. “I don’t know how we can sustain this for another year.”

One of the major problems contact tracers are finding is people are going out when they have symptoms.

“People still attend gatherings while they’re symptomatic,” Ronchi said. “We tell people to stay home, but people are still going to the bar or to the family dinner when they had a scratchy throat or a little bit of a headache, and they go anyway because they didn’t want to miss it.”

The guidance to stop the virus from spreading hasn’t changed: People should stay 6 feet apart, wear a mask, use good hygiene and stay home if they're experiencing any symptoms, she said.

Have a safe Thanksgiving

With the Thanksgiving holiday next week, Ronchi doesn’t want to discourage people from coming together, but she does recommend taking precautions.

“I am very concerned about large gatherings,” Ronchi said.

At Halloween, while everyone was concerned about the kids, Ronchi said it was actually adults who were infected as a result of social gatherings.

To reduce the risk, Ronchi recommends:

  • Avoid social gatherings now to avoid the risk of becoming infected
  • Keep gatherings small.
  • Turn up the heat and open the windows.
  • Maintain social distances.
  • Wear a mask when interacting with a vulnerable person.

It’s not just the elderly; younger people have experienced significant illness, Ronchi said.

“Assume you’re going to be the one to expose people and act accordingly,” Ronchi said.

Where to get tested

Lake Superior Community Health, lschc.org/in-the-community/#covid-19, 715-392-1955. The organization requires a screening phone call to be established as a patient prior to free testing.

Essentia Health, www.essentiahealth.org/covid-19/covid-19-screening, 833-494-0836, Miller Hill Mall, Duluth. Essentia requires an e-visit prior to testing.

St. Luke’s Respiratory Clinic, Miller Creek, www.slhduluth.com/patients-visitors/patient-resources/covid-19, 218-249-4200, 4190 Loberg Ave., Duluth, or St. Luke’s drive-thru garage. No appointment needed.

Community Saliva Testing at the DECC, open 7 days a week. To schedule a test, go to mncovidtestingappt.as.me/schedule.php.

CVS Pharmacy in Superior, www.cvs.com/minuteclinic/clinic-locator/covid-19-testing/superior-covid-7261.html.

UW-Superior Rapid Antigen Test with confirmatory PCR option, Marcovich Wellness Center. Registration is required and can be done at doineedacovid19test.com.