By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Due to the exploding numbers of COVID-19 cases in Dunn County, the Colfax Village Board has approved a memorandum of understanding for the Colfax Rescue Squad to help Dunn County with contract tracing.
The number of COVID-19 cases is spiking, and the Dunn County health department is overwhelmed and unable to do all of the contact tracing, said Don Knutson, director of the Colfax Rescue Squad, at the Colfax Village Board’s November 9 meeting.
As of Friday, November 6, Dunn County had 1,500 total cases of COVID-19.
By Wednesday, November 11, the total number of positive cases of COVID-19 in Dunn County had jumped to 1,735 with 14 people currently hospitalized, and with 547 active cases.
By Friday, November 13, the total number of positive cases in Dunn County was 1,840, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website.
Knutson proposed that when the Emergency Medical Technicians at the Colfax Rescue Squad are not out on a call and are not performing other job duties at the station that they help the Dunn County health department with contact tracing.
During her weekly updates on Friday afternoon via Facebook Live, KT Gallagher, director of the Dunn County health department and the county’s health officer, has said there are so many new daily cases of COVID-19 that people should be prepared to notify their contacts themselves if they test positive for the coronavirus.
“We are overwhelmed. We cannot contact trace all of the cases,” Gallagher told the village board at the November 9 meeting.
Gallagher attended the meeting via Zoom as did the Colfax Messenger. The village board met in the Colfax Rescue Squad conference room where there is more space for social distancing rather than meeting in the cramped quarters at the village hall.
For the previous seven days, Dunn County had been averaging 53 new cases per day. For a county the size of Dunn County, conventional wisdom says an average of 12 cases per day would overwhelm Dunn County’s health department, Gallagher said.
The Dunn County health department is looking for additional resources to do the contact tracing, she said.
Contract tracing is critical to help interrupt the transmission of COVID-19. Slowing the spread of the disease will give area hospitals a chance to recover and will help schools and businesses to stay open, Gallagher said.
As of November 11, the Mayo Clinic Health System was reporting that 100 percent of their hospital beds in the northwest region of Wisconsin were full.
All together, there were 83 COVID-19 patients, and the hospitals in Barron, Bloomer, Eau Claire, Menomonie and Osseo were full.
In addition to the strain on hospital capacity, a certain number of healthcare workers also are unable to work due to contracting COVID-19, meaning there are fewer people available to care for those who are hospitalized.
Doctors speaking on Wisconsin Public Radio have said that COVID-19 patients are, on average, hospitalized for three times as long as patients in the hospital for other reasons.
This is an opportunity for Colfax to support the Dunn County health department, Knutson said.
“It looks like a good fit and an opportunity to address a county need,” he said.
The EMTs working on contact tracing would be short-term just through the end of the year. The contact tracing would be specific to the time the rescue squad is staffed and staff members are not fulfilling other duties or going out on EMS calls, Knutson said.
Scott Gunnufson, village president, asked Gallagher about the training the EMTs would need to do the contact tracing.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has a booklet about the mechanics of contact tracing. There also is a certain amount of “nuance” to contact tracing, so the EMTs would work remotely with a mentor, Gallagher said.
The EMTs would take online training, would read the booklet and then would work with a mentor for a week or two, she explained.
The Colfax Rescue Squad would be the first ambulance service in Dunn County to assist with the contact tracing, and Gallagher said if this goes well, she planned to contact the Boyceville ambulance service to see if they would be willing to help as well.
Gary Stene, village trustee, asked if the expense of the contact tracing by the Colfax EMTs could be recovered from any federal or state government funds.
Gallagher said she still has some contact tracing dollars available and believed the expense would be allowable but also plans to hire more contact tracers for the health department if possible.
Several village board members wondered about the expense to the rescue squad.
The EMTs would only be doing contact tracing when they are scheduled to be at the rescue squad but would not be doing contact tracing if they had other duties, said Lynn Niggemann, village administrator-clerk-treasurer.
Under no circumstances would the EMTs be working overtime to do the contact tracing, and the rescue squad would not be bringing in more EMTs to do the contact tracing. The contact tracing would only be done during an EMT’s normal shift, she said.
The Colfax Village Board unanimously approved the memorandum of understanding with the Dunn County health department for Colfax EMTs to work on contact tracing.
In his written report to the village board, Knutson noted “it is now common that CRS staff is encountering COVID-19 positive individuals.”
Knutson’s report also noted, “Thanksgiving recommendation is to avoid big family get togethers and to keep it small, wear masks, wash hands, six foot spacing.”
The same recommendations, Knutson’s report states, apply to deer camp for masks, hand hygiene, small groups and spacing.
Gallagher’s advice to Dunn County residents during her weekly updates is — “Mask up. Back up. Wash up.”