COVID Testing (copy)

Joseph Zbaracki, a resident physician with Prevea Health, performs a COVID-19 test in July at its drive-up facility at 617 W. Clairemont Ave. in Eau Claire.

EAU CLAIRE — Eau Claire County’s chief health official is asking people to consider two new tools for controlling COVID-19 that the state rolled out this week — a contact tracing app that will alert users if they’re a close contact to someone who’s tested positive, and a free at-home COVID-19 test.

“I would encourage people to take advantage of the (app),” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, at a Wednesday news conference. “It will give you an idea if you need to be concerned about being a close contact.”

In the next several days, Wisconsin residents with Android or Apple mobile devices will get a notification that will let them choose to download or enable the app, which has been officially dubbed WI Exposure Notification, according to Gov. Tony Evers’ office.

The free app will serve as a voluntary, indirect contact tracing system. Someone who tests positive for COVID-19 can alert the app of their diagnosis, and using Bluetooth signals of other smartphones using the app nearby, the app will alert other smartphone users who have been within six feet for 15 minutes or longer to the person who tested positive, according to Evers’ office. Those people will be told they’re a close contact and should begin quarantining.

Evers’ office said the app doesn’t collect, use or store any GPS or personal data, and that it uses anonymous Bluetooth signals to track the proximity of app users. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, the app won’t release their identity, location, phone number or personal information to that person’s close contacts. (However, the notification will include the date of exposure.)

Giese said she is using the new app herself.

“It’s an opportunity, if I become positive, for my close contacts to be notified,” she said.

“If my children opt in to the app, they will be notified when I push that button if I become positive, because those household contacts of mine would be considered close contacts.”

To enter a positive test result, Wisconsin residents will first have to enter a verification code from a public health agency, according to the app’s privacy policy.

Android users will receive notifications from Google, and iPhone users will get their notifications from Apple, the governor’s office said in a news release.

The app is free, voluntary and can be turned off or uninstalled, depending on the operating system, at any point, according to its privacy policy.

The more people who use the app, the more effective it will be, Evers said.

“Now that we have a vaccine, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, folks, but we’re not in the clear just yet—we still need everyone to do their part to help fight this virus,” he said in a news release this week.

Giese noted Wednesday: “Even more importantly, please don’t put yourself in situations where this app is the only way to know if you’ve been exposed to disease.”

At-home tests rolled out

The state also debuted an at-home COVID-19 test this week. Wisconsin residents will be able to request the saliva collection kits for free, even if they don’t have symptoms of the virus, according to Evers’ office.

The new at-home test is a PCR test done on saliva, the “gold standard” for accuracy in detecting COVID-19, Giese said.

“The test kit takes a little bit to order and arrive at your home,” Giese said, warning people who have symptoms or who are a close contact that they should first look for a faster option: finding a Wisconsin National Guard or community testing site, or getting a test through a health care provider.

Wisconsin residents can request the at-home test kits at tinyurl.com/y7qm3f78.

The test kits will ship directly to peoples’ homes. The test is monitored, meaning people must have access to the internet so a testing supervisor can watch via video call as the person collects a saliva sample, Giese said.

People must then ship the test to a laboratory via UPS dropbox.

“This is an important tool to provide easy access to COVID-19 testing,” said DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm in a news release.

Giese warned that even with new tools to track the virus and vaccinations finally coming to the area, the best way to avoid COVID-19 is to stay six feet apart from people outside your home and wear a face mask.

“We still have to keep up with those basics,” Giese said.

County virus data

In Eau Claire County, new cases of the virus are still holding steady, though new hospitalizations and deaths are up slightly compared to last week.

Four county residents died of the virus in the last week, compared to two the week before. A total of 71 residents of the county have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Fourteen county residents were hospitalized with the virus this week, compared to six the week before. Since March, 280 county residents have been hospitalized with COVID-19, or about 3% of all the county’s known COVID-19 patients.

The county is averaging 46 new cases per day this week, the same as last week, according to county data.

“It is slowing, and that is really good news for all of us,” Giese said. “But it’s still high, and it’s higher in some parts of our county. I’d particularly call out that in the rural parts of our county, and rural areas across the state, cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to grow. I particularly make a plea out to the rural parts of our communities to really lean in to those basic mitigation strategies.”

Testing numbers also rose this week. About 1,350 coronavirus tests were done in the county this week, compared to 1,100 last week. At its latest peak in November, the county was posting 3,800 tests per week, according to county data.

The test-positivity rate — or the percentage of all tests that come back positive — is sitting at 23%. It’s lower than last week’s rate of 29%, a good sign, health officials said. (That figure doesn’t include multiple tests per person, such as a health care worker who might be tested multiple times per week or month.)

The Health Department plans to release its weekly COVID-19 data report today, Giese said.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.