Urgent pleas have come from area health care systems and public health officials asking area residents to take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community. The past week, from Dec. 10 to Tuesday, Dec. 17, health officials counted 763 new coronavirus cases among Barron County residents.
Area health care systems—Mayo Clinic, Marshfield Clinic Health System and Cumberland Healthcare—joined Barron County Public Health in asking people’s help in stopping the spread of COVID-19. Staying home and not attending in-person gatherings (especially when ill), ordering take-out instead of dining out and wearing face coverings and washing hand frequently when in public spaces can help slow the spread, they said.
With a total of 1,752 COVID-19 tests reported, the new cases gave a weekly percent positive rate of 43.6 percent, down from 49 percent for Nov. 3–10, but still higher than 34 percent for Oct. 27–Nov. 3 and 22.8 percent for Oct. 20–27.
This past week saw 14 more deaths, for a total of 35 deaths in the county. All of the new deaths were between the ages of 60–99 and they had underlying health conditions, public health officials said. As of Nov. 17, there were 809 active cases and 1,911 people had recovered.
The increase in county cases mirrors growing statewide trends. It took more than eight months to reach the first 100,000 cases in the state. It was about five weeks to reach 200,000 total cases, but it took only three and a half weeks to reach 300,000 cases. As of Nov. 17, DHS reported a total of 323,848 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
The rising number of cases was negatively impacting hospitals and clinics and their ability to treat patients, case-positive or not. Hospital beds were filling up. Last week Mayo reported 100 percent of its hospital beds were occupied. As of Nov. 17, the state Department of Health Services showed northwest Wisconsin’s 26 hospitals had 80.5 percent of their beds occupied and 92.5 percent of intensive care hospital beds were being used.
“The surge in our area threatens the health care you are accustomed to receiving,” the clinics and BCPH said in a joint statement. “If our health care workers become ill, the services health care systems are able to provide may be limited.
“The reality of the situation is, if we don’t take action now, we are at risk of overwhelming our health care systems,” the statement read.
Sarah Turner, public health officer with Barron County Public Health, said that health care staffing shortages meant that the county’s plan for a surge facility was not possible. Earlier this year it was proposed to open beds in Heritage Manor in Rice Lake if hospitals were overwhelmed.
“The biggest issue medical centers are seeing is ill or quarantined staff. We have no capacity to staff Heritage Manor at this time,” Turner said. Instead, hospitals that are full must send patients to other hospitals that have open beds. If all local hospitals reach capacity, patients will then be sent to the alternate care facility in Milwaukee. That facility has 23 patients out of a maximum capacity of 530 current beds as of Nov. 17.
This week, BCPH put out a plea on behalf of area nursing homes, urging people to apply for open positions at seven area long-term care facilities.
Contact tracing races to keep up
The rising number of cases has made it harder for public health officials to do thorough contact tracing.
Public health departments use contact tracing as the main tool to fight the pandemic. When a person is confirmed positive, public health officials talk to the new case to see who they may have been in close contact with after they became ill. Any close contact is notified and they are asked to monitor for symptoms and quarantine to prevent further spread.
Barron County has around 40 contact tracers working to keep up with the growing number of cases. Nearly all of the county’s health department is involved, including 18 new part-time staff, said Turner.
With the recent surge, they have had to move to “crisis standards” for contact tracing, Turner said. When there are too many cases to handle efficiently, DHS recommends county departments start prioritizing cases and reducing interview times.
“We are prioritizing those over age 60, or who we believe are at more risk of severe complications, and those under 19 years old or school age children,” Turner said. “Positive cases between 19–59 years old are contacted as time allows and will be sent information on isolation and notifying close contacts.”
Contact tracers are notifying school-age contacts, those at high risk (including health care workers) and those that may be uncomfortable notifying close contacts themselves.
The number of close contacts a positive case might have varies widely, she added. It depends on how many people they have in their household or interact with on a daily basis. “School, work, and social environments also contribute to these numbers and vary significantly between cases,” Turner said.
Fortunately, for those listed as close contacts, 90 percent are successfully reached. The 10 percent not reached usually do not have a working phone number and a letter must be sent instead. “Many times we find that cases have already notified all their close contacts,” Turner said.
Community spread still makes up the majority of cases. “Looking at cases in the past two weeks, 47 percent of people testing positive have known how/where they were infected. The other 53 percent were unsure where or how they were infected,” Turner said.
Public notifications were issued for the following locations this week:
• V & M Bar, Rice Lake, on Nov. 8, 4–6 p.m.
• Hoots on the Water, Rice Lake, on Nov. 8, 6–9 p.m.