by CHRIS ROGERS
Across the local area, the coronavirus is multiplying at a speed unlike anything seen so far this year. It’s showing little sign of slowing down, overwhelming contact tracing in Wisconsin and raising concerns that Winona Health and hospitals across Minnesota and Wisconsin could be stretched to capacity this winter. Those dangers prompted new calls from health experts and political leaders to call off holiday gatherings, stay home, wear masks, and social distance. There are promising signs that a vaccine may be on the horizon this spring, but in the meantime, Minnesota and Wisconsin are each reporting dozens of COVID deaths every day and those numbers are rising.
By a number of measurements, local infections are off the charts. Trempealeau and Buffalo counties had used 25 cases per day per 100,000 residents as the threshold for severe risk of transmission. The two counties are now at 204 and 147 cases per day per 100,000 residents, respectively, according to state data. Winona County is averaging 114. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) advises schools to switch to distance learning when the 14-day case rate per 10,000 residents reaches 50. Winona County’s unofficial 14-day rate was 137.5 on Tuesday.
Winona County posted 402 new COVID cases in the last seven days, up from 297 last week and 185 the week before. On Sunday, Winona County surpassed 2,000 total confirmed cases. It took seven months to reach 1,000 cases and less than six weeks to reach 2,000. Last week, the state reported that two more Winona County residents died from COVID, the 21st and 22nd deaths in the county overall.
Trempealeau County saw 424 new cases in the last week, according to state data, up from 243 last week. Buffalo County had 135 new cases in the last seven days, up from 111 last week. According to county health officials, three more Trempealeau County residents died from COVID-19 in recent days, bringing the total to 10, and six more people were hospitalized last week.
La Crosse County and Rochester’s Olmsted County each posted over 1,000 infections in the last seven days.
The virus is spreading widely in rural communities. On a per capita basis, St. Charles’ 55972 zip code is now getting hit harder than the city of Winona, according to Winona County Public Health data. “It is extremely important to look out for and help our neighbors,” St. Charles Mayor John Schaber stated. “Do what we can to protect the vulnerable. [It] doesn’t matter whether you live in a small town or a big city. We are in this together.”
‘In crisis’ — surging cases overwhelm local contact tracing
“Trempealeau County is in crisis,” local health department staff wrote last week, reporting that huge numbers of infections have overwhelmed the county’s ability to do contact tracing — a key step to quarantine potentially infected people and stop the spread. Trempealeau County health officials are asking COVID-positive residents to do their own contact tracing and calling on everyone to stay home except for work, essential errands, and medical care.
New cases also overwhelmed Buffalo County contact tracers, where health officials asked infected people to alert their own close contacts. “With this continued rapid increase in activity, we urge residents to stay home as much as possible to help fight the surge in COVID-19 cases,” county health officials wrote on social media. “Public health is at our capacity, and we need our community to help slow the spread.”
Winona County is not far behind, with a per-capita case rate equal to where Trempealeau County was just a week ago. Winona County contact tracers have also been overwhelmed by the number of cases; however, MDH staff have helped handle the overflow.
Colleges, schools move online
Saint Mary’s University (SMU), Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS), Cotter Schools, St. Charles Public Schools, and Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District all moved to distance learning as coronavirus infections and exposures in their schools and in their broader community increased. Winona State University (WSU) announced it would go into another two week “quarantine” — essentially, cancelling all in-person events — after cases among its students and staff trended up last week.
For Winona County school districts, the moves to distance learning brings them in-line with state and local public health recommendations. “We suggest and the data suggests that distance learning is the way to go,” Winona County Public Health Supervisor Melanie Tatge said last Monday.
“Please help our students get back in the classroom,” WAPS leaders urged. “Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Avoid large gatherings. Follow the protocols. Listen to the experts.”
Evers: Stay home; Walz: ‘We can turn the corner’
“Wisconsin, this is serious. The crisis is urgent,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers told residents last week as he announced a new order urging residents to stay at home.
“All individuals should stay home as much as possible and only make trips when necessary, such as to go to work, pick up groceries, or refill prescriptions,” the order reads. “Avoid gatherings of any size between individuals who are not members of the same living unit or household, to the extent possible,” it advises.
Unlike Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order this spring, Evers’ latest action asks citizens to do the right thing without legal requirements.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s latest executive order to slow COVID — setting a 10 p.m. curfew on bars and restaurants and limiting personal gatherings to no more than 10 people and no more than three families — came into effect today. It is a legal requirement, though state officials are focusing on education, not enforcement. The Winona Fire Department reported local bars were in compliance with the new hours last weekend.
“We know what the data shows,” Walz stated on Monday. “If we continue to mask up, if we continue to social distance, if we continue to take mitigation efforts, we reduce the pressure on the frontline health workers, we reduce the pressure on the teachers and the daycare providers … We can turn that corner. We can make a difference.” To skeptics, he urged, “Wear your mask and stay healthy. If for no other reason, that will keep you healthy to vote against me in two years, if that’s what it takes. Just keep yourself healthy and keep others healthy.”
“Our economy cannot bounce back until we contain this virus,” Evers stated. “Please, please, cancel the happy hours, the dinner parties, the sleepovers, the play dates at your home,” he added. “And if a family member invites you over, offer to hangout virtually instead. And unfortunately, with the holidays just around the corner, we recommend that you plan to celebrate just with your own household. You can still invite others to join virtually, but we advise you not to go to any gatherings with people who are not in your immediate home.”
Osterholm: Hold on; a vaccine is coming
Eight months into the pandemic, many are feeling the strain of being apart from friends and loved ones and the life-altering demands of trying to slow the virus. Pandemic fatigue is setting in just as the Midwest is reaching its most dangerous phase yet. University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy Director Dr. Michael Osterholm urged Midwesterners to make short-term sacrifices and keep their guard up for a few more months.
“This is our COVID year,” Osterholm said. “This is not going to be like last year — whether it be the holidays, whether it be everyday life — and it will hopefully not be like next year.” He continued, “With the advent of a vaccine and the availability of that vaccine — I believe, starting in the first quarter of next year — if we can just hold out until then, we can save so many lives, so much suffering. And so our efforts are not for a long-term, do-this-forever kind of approach. It is to give us the time to get to a vaccine, and I believe we will have safe and effective vaccines in that time period. So we’re asking all Minnesotans to do that, not just for themselves but for each other … If we are overwhelming those [health care] systems, we all suffer.”
To protect yourself and others from COVID-19, wear a mask over your nose and mouth when in public, stay six feet apart from others, avoid large gatherings, wash your hands, cover your coughs and sneezes, stay home when sick, seek testing if you have any symptom of COVID, and follow all guidelines for quarantine and isolation, health officials recommend. Symptoms of COVID include include cough, shortness of breath, fever, sore throat, headache, body or muscle aches, chills, fatigue, congestion or runny nose, diarrhea, vomiting, or new loss of taste or smell. In Winona, COVID-19 tests are available at Winona Health and an MDH testing site in the southwest corner of the Winona Mall.
More information on how to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, where to seek testing, and what to do if you’re sick or exposed is available at health.state.mn.us, dhs.wisconsin.gov, and cdc.gov.