State health officials finding ways to keep track of untested potential COVID-19 cases

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)– There are 26 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in La Crosse County, while 17 of those people have recovered. But numbers only tell part of the story.

There could be many more people infected that may or may not be presenting symptoms. But state health officials are trying to keep track of these potential cases even if they have yet to be tested.

Rodney Johnson started feeling the symptoms on March 20th.

“I had a sore throat. I had a cough. I had somewhat of a temperature. And I just wasn’t feeling good,” Johnson said.

He immediately thought he caught the virus. That day, Johnson said he called his provider at Gundersen Health System and was transferred to a staff member to talk about his symptoms.

“I said, ‘do you want me to come out and get tested?’ And they said, ‘no,'” Johnson said.

Johnson is concerned that there could be many others like him in the community. People who may have presented symptoms but have not been tested, which is then not shown in public numbers.

“I just think these stats are really, really not true,” Johnson said.

It’s unclear how many of these phone calls are made to providers in our area. According to a DHS memo issued on Monday, only information about test results, hospitalization status and any COVID-19 related deaths need to be reported to the health department.

“At this time, DHS is requiring that information about hospitalization status be reported along with COVID-19 test results, including whether patients are hospitalized at the time of diagnosis, and incident hospitalizations among patients previously diagnosed in the outpatient setting. DHS also requires that deaths due to COVID-19 be reported within 24 hours of the time of death.
COVID-19-related deaths should be reported to local health departments by telephone, fax, or WEDSS web report, similar to notification for other reportable conditions,” said the memo, which was sent to Wisconsin Healthcare Providers, Local and Tribal Health Departments, Laboratory Personnel, Medical Examiners and Coroners.

“We’re really using a broad range of sources of data to understand how many people are developing symptoms,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the Bureau of Communicable Diseases, during a Friday press conference.

State health officials said they have set up their own nurse triage line that people can call. They are collecting data about the number of those calls and the percentage of people being hospitalized or treated for respiratory issues.

“So we’re trying to monitor the overall, what we call syndromic surveillance, meaning the syndrome of a respiratory infection, that could be COVID-19 on a broad basis,” Westergaard said.

That information, along with data of confirmed cases, may give a better picture to where the state is headed.

While people may be concerned that they’re showing symptoms, most people in our area who do get tested do not have COVID-19. According to the La Crosse County Health Department, as of Friday, only about 2.3 percent of tests come back positive.

However, anyone who believes they have symptoms, regardless if they get tested, should stay at home and follow guidance from the health department. That includes staying home until they are at least seven days from the date the symptoms began and 72 hours with improved symptoms without medications. If symptoms are severe, individuals should call their healthcare provider to determine their need for testing.