Milwaukee contact tracers face backlog of nearly 1,600 cases as state reports 4,870 new cases and 51 deaths
Overwhelmed Milwaukee health officials struggling to reach people who've tested positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts were facing a backlog Thursday of nearly 1,600 confirmed cases.
But the fact that Milwaukee is still doing contact tracing is a positive sign. Some Wisconsin counties have given up trying to reach out to an infected person's contacts, instead asking people to do the work themselves as the state continues to face a crushing surge of coronavirus cases.
The state Department of Health Services on Thursday reported 4,870 new cases and 51 deaths, bringing the death toll to 1,948. The state's average number of new daily cases over the last seven days is 4,128, a record high. Two months ago, just before the virus began surging in Wisconsin, the seven-day average was six times smaller, at 684.
There were a record 1,453 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Wisconsin as of Thursday, including 330 patients in intensive care units. Seven patients were at the field hospital at State Fair Park.
Health officials warn hospitalizations and deaths are expected to continue rising as cases climb rapidly.
"We're in a tough spot, Wisconsin," DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said during a virtual news conference.
'We have got to be cautious'
Willems Van Dijk and others urged Wisconsinites to stay home as much as possible and avoid social gatherings — even if they recently received a negative test, she said. As soon as a person leaves the testing site and interacts with someone else, exposure to the virus is possible.
"It doesn't provide you any protection to have a negative test," she said.
Willems Van Dijk acknowledged the desire to see vulnerable family members like grandparents, but she urged people to continue to take proper safety precautions.
"I'm a grandparent; I want to see my grandchildren," she said. "But we have got to be cautious about this and not be using a test as a ticket to just go get together."
The state also reported 8,304 new negative tests and a seven-day average positivity rate of 27.1%. The rate is the number of residents who have tested positive for the first time divided by the number of residents who have ever been tested.
One in five hospitals in the state reported critical staffing shortages as hundreds of health care workers are forced to quarantine at home after being exposed to the virus in the community. Those staffing shortages mean a difficult job is even more grueling for health care workers, Willems Van Dijk said.
"What it means is everybody has to step up and work a lot harder when they're already working very hard as it is," she said. "It means people work double shifts, it means people come in on their day off, it means people take more patients than they normally do."
Willems Van Dijk wants Wisconsinites to understand the toll the surge of hospitalizations has taken on hospital staff.
"I want us to think about that nurse that's working in that hospital, who's working now not an 8-hour shift but a 16-hour shift, because there weren't enough people to come in on the next shift. She's wearing an N95 that is glued to his or her face, wearing a face shield, wearing an extra protective gown, wearing gloves, all day, 16 hours.
"Coming home with skin macerated that was underneath that mask for 16 hours. All that time away from their family, on their feet, taking care of people who are alone, who are having problems breathing, and who are often taking their last breaths without their family.
"This is why we need the people of Wisconsin to join with us and take this extremely seriously," she said.
Milwaukee hospitalizations also break records
Like the state, Milwaukee County saw a record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations Thursday.
There were 325 patients hospitalized with the coronavirus in Milwaukee County Thursday, said Ben Weston, medical services director for Milwaukee County's Office of Emergency Management.
"First and foremost, COVID-19 is real," Gregory Brusko, the chief clinical officer of Ascension Wisconsin, said during the virtual news conference.
He urged people to take the threat of the virus seriously.
"We will be here for you when you need us," Brusko said. "We're asking, will you join us?"
At Ascension St. Francis Hospital, for example, the number of COVID-19 patients has increased from the six people it was treating six weeks ago to between 15 and 20 now, said Niraj Sawhney, an infectious disease doctor who works at the hospital.
"Now, because of a little complacency, they are coming in a little later and sicker," he said.
Sawhney said that when the cases surged in May and June, many of the patients were from the Hispanic community whereas now the hospital seems to be getting more patients from the suburbs.
The hospital has an ICU that can handle 20 patients, he said. It is not full yet and, if needed, the hospital has a plan to use other space to expand its ICU capacity.
Contact tracers struggling to keep up
Contact tracers working for the City of Milwaukee faced a backlog of 1,580 confirmed cases as of Thursday.
Interim Health Commissioner Marlaina Jackson acknowledged the backlog during a Milwaukee Public Schools board meeting Tuesday and said the department was in the process of ramping up its corps of contact tracers.
"So, it's just a matter of ramping back up," she said. "This is technically our second official wave, and so we know what we need to do. We already have our training pretty streamlined."
An MPS nurse and others raised concerns about the backlog as part of a discussion about whether the school district should move to a hybrid learning model in January. MPS has at least 22 nurses and other staff who have been trained to serve as contact tracers for cases in the district. Some voiced concern that a delay in tracing would contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in buildings.
"The Health Department is overwhelmed," said MPS nurse Sarah Gruettner. "Now you want (school nurses) to monitor students for COVID, do isolation room management and contact tracing."
There are 178 people on Milwaukee's contact tracing team, and officials said they are increasing the number of tracers. Last week the team processed 1,376 confirmed cases and 1,665 contacts, officials said.
Asked about the situation during a virtual news conference with reporters, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said he was concerned but "not panicking."
Some Wisconsin counties are asking the infected person to do that contact tracing themselves. That includes Dane County, the second-most populous in the state, which has switched to a "crisis model" of contact tracing.
Willems Van Dijk also urged recently infected people to notify their close contacts themselves, as contact tracers across the state cannot keep up with the thousands of new cases reported each day.
In many cases, the likely source of exposure was a small gathering like a birthday party, backyard barbecue or Packers party, she said.
As holidays draw closer, Willems Van Dijk said residents must be stricter about their social interactions. The virus will not care that people want to see their family members, she said.
"A long, prolonged holiday gathering with a lot of people in a house without masks and without physical distancing is a perfect petri dish for COVID-19," she said.
"It would be very challenging for us to have a surge on top of the surge that we're having right now," she said.
— John Fauber of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
Contact Mary Spicuzza at (414) 224-2324 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @MSpicuzzaMJS.