MONROE — As Green County reports its third COVID-19 death and a surge of new cases, local leaders in the pandemic response effort are calling on the community to keep up with measures to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus.
More than six months into the pandemic, “it’s wearing on everybody,” said Tanna McKeon, director of Green County Emergency Management.
“But we have to hang in there and fight this. We’re getting tired, the public’s getting tired, but we have to be together on this and do the right things. We want our schools to remain open, we want our businesses to operate, and we can’t do it if people refuse to mask up and refuse not to hold mass gatherings.”
In a Sept. 25 letter to the community, McKeon and other members of the Green County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) — including law enforcement, healthcare and school officials — asked for “your help to take action against this virus.”
The letter had six points of action: avoid gathering with people who are not from your household; wear a mask when around others; stay at least six feet from others; wash hands and use hand sanitizer; stay home, especially if you have symptoms; and get tested for COVID-19 if you have symptoms.
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Green County have shot up in recent weeks and doubled in the past month alone. Public health officials say parties and other gatherings are a major factor in the surge and have led to spread in the community.
Masking is backed by a growing body of scientific evidence. Robert Redfield, a virologist and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other doctors wrote in a leading scientific journal in July that “the time is now” for everyone to mask up.
On Sept. 22, Gov. Tony Evers extended the statewide mask mandate for 60 days, citing “unprecedented, near-exponential growth of the COVID-19 pandemic” across the state. Eight of the 20 cities with the fastest increase of COVID-19 in the United States were in Wisconsin, the new mask order stated. The original order went into effect Aug. 1.
McKeon said the EOC’s letter was prompted by the surge of local cases, “a lack of people wanting to wear a mask” and a proliferation of conspiracies and other “varying information” on social media.
The pandemic has exposed how “the health of community members is connected, and we must all work together to sustain our community’s health,” the letter stated. “COVID-19 does not have to be spreading at the rate that it is in Green County. ... Recognize the impacts that a large gathering could have on the people who attend, and others in the community. Our actions can directly impact the health of others.”
She said members of the EOC, which was formed in response to the pandemic, have been meeting weekly and are constantly emailing and talking about how to guide the local response.
“We want to show the folks in Green County ... how hard we are working,” McKeon said. McKeon said she herself has experienced the hardship of not being able to attend gatherings, such as funerals, “but that’s what we have to do.”
Terry Snow, EOC member and administrator for Pleasant View Nursing Home, echoed this sentiment.
“It’s tough for everybody, I know. We just have to keep trying, keep trying for a while,” she said, adding, “Don’t get mad at each other.”
More cases, more strain on contact tracers
Green County Public Health reported on Sept. 26 the third death of a resident from COVID-19, a woman over the age of 90.
COVID-19 deaths are counted by how a physician or medical examiner fills out a death certificate. In Wisconsin, death certificates list an “immediate cause” of death followed by a sequential list of conditions or an underlying cause leading to the immediate cause.
“A death certificate that lists COVID-19 disease or SARS-CoV-2 as an underlying cause of death or a significant condition contributing to death is used for public health surveillance purposes,” said RoAnn Warden, director of Green County Public Health.
As of Sept. 28, Green County had 521 total cases, with 84 active and a positive testing rate over the previous two weeks of 11.6%.
Facility-wide public health investigations are also underway at two Monroe nursing homes after employees tested positive.
One Pleasant View employee was quarantined after testing positive the week of Sept. 20. All residents and other staff were subsequently tested and came back negative.
At Monroe Health Services, two staff members tested positive in mid-September.
“They have not been working, obviously, and are focusing on recovery,” said Kristin Mueller, spokesperson for North Shore Healthcare, the Milwaukee County-based company that runs Monroe Health Services.
In response, the facility has been following protocols to test all staff and residents twice weekly, and no additional staff and no residents have tested positive, Mueller said.
Lafayette County has also seen a recent uptick in cases, with active cases more than tripling in the last week of September.
As of Sept. 27, the county reported 293 total cases, with 96 active, as well as one probable case. Probable cases are identified by a positive antigen test and clinical criteria of infection in a person that is high risk for COVID-19 infection, such as a healthcare worker.
Lafayette County has four active public health investigations into outbreaks, two in workplaces, one at an educational facility and one stemming from an event in the community.
New cases are distributed across a wide range of ages, “which is concerning because it shows we have wide community transmission,” said Julie Leibfried, interim director of Lafayette County Public Health.
“We can pinpoint some cases but we are seeing an increase where people are unsure of where they would have picked it up,” she said.
Her department is operating “pretty much at capacity right now” and hiring for an on-call contact tracer, a position that will be reimbursed through grants, not county funds.
“We feel we’re going to need some help contact tracing if the increase of cases continues. We’re hoping it doesn’t,” Leibfried said.
In Green County, contact tracers have had to cut back on monitoring.
“With the surge in the number of positive cases in the last couple of weeks we have had to reduce the regularity of our symptom-monitoring calls to those in quarantine and isolation. Our priority has been on getting in touch with the positive cases as quick as possible and notifying their close contacts with quarantine instructions and education,” said Warden.
The majority of residents are cooperative with public health contact tracers.
“Occasionally, we will encounter people who are not willing to share who their close contacts are, and unfortunately this kind of response puts our community at risk for further spread of COVID-19.”