Wisconsin schools reduced contact tracing in record number of COVID-19 cases

When a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19, best practice, according to state and federal health officials, is to determine who else they might have exposed.

This is being done through contact tracing, one of the pillars of COVID-19 mitigation throughout the ongoing pandemic. It’s also one of the hardest to follow, almost from the start. As the number of cases rose, local health departments struggled to reach everyone who tested positive.

Many schools in Wisconsin set up their own contact tracing operation, with administrative staff and school nurses calling and sending home notes to families whose children had been potentially exposed.

However, as cases among young people have reached new heights this school year, schools have had to downsize.

“In the fall, we dragged a bit. It was difficult, but we made it, trying our best,” said Kaying Xiong, executive director of student services for the Eau Claire area school district. . “And then we came back in January, after the winter break. The push was just unbearable, in terms of just being able to make it happen.”

Xiong said schools used to personally call each close contact to let them know they were exposed and to guide them through next steps.

“We don’t really do that anymore,” she said. “We rely on the child to bring home a note from school, we rely on leaving a message, we rely on email to notify parents that their child has been a close contact at the school.”

The district has also moved to focus on close contacts who have been exposed in high-risk environments, such as a cafeteria or during swimming lessons, when they cannot wear a mask.

On January 12, the Madison Metropolitan School District sent parents an email stating that it would not send emails, texts or phone calls to close contacts or provide notifications to the school-wide positive cases.

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“With the number of positive cases of COVID-19 at unprecedented levels, our health services staff have had to prioritize their work in order to stay ahead of increased demand for services,” the email read. . “As a result, health care staff are shifting from contact tracing of positive cases to making contact only with people who test positive and their high-risk close contacts (household members).”

It’s not just schools that have had to scale back their contact tracing efforts. As Wisconsin health agencies have been overwhelmed, first by the wave of the delta variant and now by a rush of cases driven by the omicron variant, organizations across the state have warned they cannot notify anyone potentially exposed to someone who has tested positive.

But schools have often struggled to respond to contact tracing requests in the first place. For districts that have a nurse on staff, contact tracing has often been added to their workload; many districts have only a part-time nurse, a nurse who covers multiple schools, or no school nurse at all. Other districts have avoided contact tracing altogether this year.

Doug Olson, district administrator for the Kickapoo school district, which has about 500 students, said his district has maintained COVID-19 precautions like masking — despite fierce objections from some parents — in part because he knew contact tracing would be a challenge.

“That’s one of the reasons we’ve held the line on universal masking is because we only have a part-time nurse,” he said. “The level of contact tracing and testing that you have to do if you’re optional with a mask, I’m not sure we have the staff to be able to support that.”

With children in masks at school, Olson said the bulk of Kickapoo cases have come from athletics or students and staff who see family or friends.

Still, Olson said the part-time district nurse spends most of her time on COVID-related issues.

Xiong, in Eau Claire, said the work can also be emotionally taxing.

“I’m so exhausted,” she said. “It’s not just the work, it’s the feelings for our families and for our staff that has to make this work.”

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