‘We’ve definitely been busy’: UW-Madison adds contact tracers spring semester as testing expands

Campus testing record set Wednesday at >11,600

MADISON, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin – Madison’s University Health Services has a team of about 100 contact tracers, roughly double that of last semester, according to registered nurse Carlotta Soeder.

She now holds the title of contact tracing manager, after starting contact tracing with UHS in May. New this semester, UW-Madison students and staff have testing requirements.

“This semester definitely was a change with mandatory testing on campus. We’ve definitely been busy,” Soeder said. “(Contact tracing) is very important on campus when we have so many students and staff here.”

UW-Madison students who live on or near campus must take at least two saliva COVID-19 tests each week. In response to “a concerning rise in cases among students,” the university directed certain student populations to receive more frequent testing, including some living in the dorms. Since then, the university’s data dashboard shows cases trending down.

In the latest data snapshot from Public Health Madison & Dane County, nearly 40% of total positive cases in the county were associated with UW-Madison over a 14-day period in the beginning of February.

Also during this 14-day period, 65% of tests among Dane County residents were conducted by UW’s University Health Services.

“This is not surprising, as UW is doing an incredible amount of testing, which supports rapid identification of people with COVID-19 and helps to contain spread of the disease through contact tracing, isolation and quarantine support,” PHMDC wrote. “We’re monitoring the situation closely for evidence of increasing case counts in other age groups. We are not currently seeing any such increase among other age groups.”

Last September, the university responded with restrictions on undergraduate students in efforts to halt an early fall semester spike.

“The good news though, is UW is testing students … so they’re catching those cases really early, and quraranting, and then if they if turn positive, they’re taking them and putting in isolation,” PHMDC Contact Tracer Anne Morgan Giroux said. “There’s a lot of controls for that now. I think we’re catching a lot of it this time around.”

The university set a daily record of 11,600 tests completed Wednesday according to its social media pages, compared to about 3,000 on the university’s highest testing day fall semester.

“That’s the beauty of frequency, when you test like that, keep testing routinely, we can catch you before you become symptomatic,” Soeder said. “We know you can spread the virus before symptoms are present.”

With notice of a positive case, tracers like Soeder can call each and every close contact.

“When we look at contact tracing, if we can keep one more person at home in quarantine or isolation, we can prevent maybe four or five others from being ill, and really that is our goal,” she said.

Many cases are traced to socializing, according to Soeder.

“I think students are at the age range where their identity is friends,” she said, adding that students are receptive to instructions given by tracers. “We’ve seen some great, great work done by students that take it seriously, and they do isolate and quarantine, so it feels good to know that (as a) contact tracer.”