WFD: “This is it” — major COVID surge is here


Quarantines, illness affecting hospitals, fire dept.




As the city’s emergency manager, it is Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle's job to be ready — or as ready as anyone can be — for the worst. “This is it,” Bittle told the Post.

For the last nine months, Bittle and others have been planning what to do if COVID starts to overwhelm hospitals and critical services such as the fire department. “We’re there now,” Bittle said. “You’re seeing that across the Midwest where hospitals are full, and we are there,” he stated. This week, Winona Health joined the chorus of health systems warning of that staff quarantines and COVID cases are in danger of overwhelming their capacity. Other businesses and critical services are also feeling the pinch of staff out sick or exposed. “We’re seeing it in the fire department,” Bittle continued, describing firefighters missing work from sickness or exposure to the virus. “COVID is affecting us through the backdoor with staffing alone and having the capability to provide services.” To be clear, the fire department is still ready to protect and serve Winona. There are contingency plans for dealing with staffing shortages, but like hospitals, the sheer amount of virus going around is beginning to hamstring critical services.

Like hospitals, virtually all of the infections and exposures are happening off work, when firefighters are going about their daily lives, Bittle explained. The fact that exposures and infections aren’t happening in the workplace, he added, “That goes back to proving that wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands work.” The massive COVID surge Bittle has been bracing for is here, but there are things every Winonan can do to help: Stay home whenever possible, avoid social gatherings, wear a mask, stay six feet apart from others, wash their hands, and follow quarantine and isolation guidelines. “There’s no turning back now, and we have to do everything under the sun to keep our [intensive care unit] beds open and provide for our cardiac patients and our stroke patients,” Bittle said.

Earlier this week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued a new stay-at-home order, and earlier this month, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued an order asking Wisconsinites to do the same. Bittle said, “I applaud what the governor did, and I pray to God in four weeks we’re back to some normalcy.”

Bittle’s warning comes as infections have been skyrocketing in Winona County and across the region, and as deaths began to climb.

Winona County posted 382 new COVID cases this week, up from 330 last week and 242 the week before. The good news is that after shooting straight up for weeks, infections plateaued briefly this week — following the comparatively low 46 cases on Tuesday and 20 on Wednesday. The bad news is 46 cases in one day would have been shockingly high just three weeks ago, and the brief slowdown in accelerating virus transmission doesn’t appear to be holding. There were 72 new infections reported on Friday, a new record.

There were four new COVID deaths in Winona County this week, up from two last week. Three deaths were reported on Thursday and one on Friday. The deceased were all in their 80s and 90s. According to county records, one resident was recently hospitalized with COVID. A total of 26 Winona County residents — with ages ranging from 70-100 — have died from the virus since the pandemic began, according to county health officials.

Four more Trempealeau County residents and one Buffalo County resident died from the coronavirus, county health officials reported this week. That brings the death toll to 11 in Trempealeau County and four in Buffalo County.

Infections keep going up and up in both Buffalo and Trempealeau counties. Trempealeau County saw 416 new infections this week — including a record-setting 120 cases in one — up from 338 last week and 207 the week before. Buffalo County reported 142 new cases in the last seven days, up from 130 a week ago. 

The average daily cases per 100,000 residents in Trempealeau County climbed to over 200, nearly double the rate in Winona County, according to state data. Buffalo County is averaging 155 cases per day per 100,000 residents.


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