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Eric Litke
By Eric Litke May 4, 2020

Scott Fitzgerald says Wisconsin has no contact tracing program “we can speak of.” Not true.

If Your Time is short

  • Wisconsin is still ramping up the capacity for tracing, and there have clearly been gaps in the work so far.

  • But hundreds of people around the state are doing this tracing work -- local and state health officials both.

Facing a growing push to re-open Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers has laid out a series of key benchmarks for easing social distancing restrictions, dubbed the "Badger Bounce Back" plan.

The state is tracking data on cases, symptoms and hospital usage, but Evers has also pointed to three other logistical elements: access to personal protective gear, expanded testing and expanded contact tracing.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald homed in on the last of those while criticizing Evers in an April 26, 2020, interview with WISN-TV’s "UpFront" program.

"We need better information. More explanations," said Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. "They have no tracing program going on that we can speak of."

Contact tracing, done by public health officials, is the process of supporting patients with suspected or confirmed infections. Steps include identifying who else they had contact with, warning those other individuals and educating everyone exposed on how to protect themselves and others through isolation and other steps.

It’s a fundamental element of the pandemic response, helping to identify clusters of cases early on to minimize the spread.

Does Wisconsin really have no such program "to speak of"?

Tracing ramp up hasn’t always been smooth

Asked for evidence of the claim, Fitzgerald spokesman Alec Zimmerman said this:

"The point he was trying to make is the same that (Wisconsin Department of Health Services) makes daily in the briefings -- tracing as it is now isn’t enough."

Zimmerman noted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported on shortcomings in the system.

For instance, the newspaper contacted 10 people who had the disease or lost loved ones within the first few weeks of the outbreak, and seven said they were never contacted by health officials as of April 23 when the story published.

A story published May 1, 2020, detailed how Milwaukee has added staffing and made other changes to improve the tracing program.

State and local officials have been tracing

Health officials across the nation are scrambling to add contact tracers.

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The number of tracers needed for the pandemic is about double the usual need, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

"Public health nurses do this regularly, for example, for sexually transmitted diseases or tuberculosis," DHS spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt said in an email. "What is new in this space is mainly the large scale of cases and the speed at which the virus is able to spread – which means we need additional contact tracers to do this work so that we are able to reach each identified exposed person really quickly."

DHS doesn’t know how many tracers are working in Wisconsin or how many tracing investigations have been done since those efforts are lead by local health departments.

DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said at the April 28 COVID-19 media briefing that the goal is to have 1,000 contact tracers "between the DHS surge capacity and the capacity of local health departments."

The state had trained 400 contact tracers as of April 30 to provide "surge capacity" for local health departments, Goodsitt said. The number trained was closer to 250 when Fitzgerald made his claim.

"The state surge team has been part of more than 1,100 interviews (as of April 30), which is just a fraction of calls our local public health tracers have made," Goodsitt said.

The number of tracers varies widely among some of the state’s larger health departments.

As of April 25, the Journal Sentinel reported the Milwaukee Health Department had dedicated 19 people to tracing, about 8% of its staff (though that was up to 54 by May 1, 2020). The Washington Ozaukee Health Department had dedicated 15 people, or about 38% of its 40-person staff. CBS 58 reported April 23 that Waukesha County had 30 contact tracers.

Milwaukee officials told the Journal Sentinel the initial tracing interview had been conducted within a week for 92% of all positive cases in the city, but it’s an extensive process. They make about 10 contacts for every positive case.

Our ruling

Fitzgerald said Wisconsin has "no tracing program going on that we can speak of."

Wisconsin — like every other state — is still ramping up the capacity for tracing. And there have clearly been gaps in the work so far.

But it’s a significant exaggeration to summarize that as having no program when hundreds of people are doing this work around the state. Tracing was being done around the state when Fitzgerald said this, and those efforts have continued to ramp up since. 

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

WISN-TV, 'UPFRONT' recap: GOP leader says Evers 'completely circumvented' rule-making process, April 26, 2020

Email exchange with Elizabeth Goodsitt, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, April 30-May 1, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, What is coronavirus 'contact tracing,' and what does it mean for reopening Wisconsin?, April 25, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Health officials can track where coronavirus is spreading by interviewing patients. Some in Milwaukee say that never happened., April 23, 2020

National Association of County and City Health Officials, Building COVID-19 Contact Tracing Capacity in Health Departments to Support Reopening American Society Safely, April 16, 2020.

Racine Journal Times, WisEye Morning Minute: DHS Ramping Up Contact Tracers, April 29, 2020

CBS-58, Counties in need of more contact tracing staff as testing ramps up, April 23, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 'Super-sized': Milwaukee, state boosting ranks of contact tracers in fight against COVID-19, May 1, 2020

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Scott Fitzgerald says Wisconsin has no contact tracing program “we can speak of.” Not true.

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