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Lafayette County business to test 160 employees for COVID-19
A big jump in countywide cases in recent weeks includes three employees at the business
Elizabeth Townsend
Elizabeth Townsend, director of the Lafayette County Health Department

LAFAYETTE COUNTY — The National Guard is coming in to do facility-wide COVID-19 testing of 160 employees at a Lafayette County workplace after an outbreak of three cases was reported there.

The diagnostic testing event is planned for Tuesday, June 23, said Elizabeth Townsend, director of the Lafayette County Health Department. She declined to name the business, explaining that she did not have their permission to release it.

A facility-wide investigation of a workplace is triggered whenever two or more employees test positive. In this case, three employees had tested positive, she said.

Townsend said she has been in weekly communication with the business since about three weeks into the coronavirus pandemic locally. Lafayette County reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case April 6.

"I know that they've taken a lot of precautions. They've really gone above and beyond keeping their staff safe," she said.

Testing all employees is "completely up to" the business and is not mandatory.

Townsend said the business could have had the testing done privately but that tapping into the National Guard's testing program made sense.

The National Guard has partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) since April to increase testing statewide. These efforts have included free community testing as well as facility-wide testing at nursing homes and workplaces. The National Guard reports so far collecting specimens for more than 145,000 tests.

The county had a good experience when a National Guard team conducted facility-wide testing May 29 at Lafayette Manor, the county-owned nursing home in Darlington. The testing was done as a precaution and not due to an identified outbreak.

The National Guard team was fast and efficient, and the test results had a quick turnaround of one to three days, Townsend said.

She expects results from the June 23 workplace testing event by the end of the week. Lafayette Manor reported no positive cases among its staff or residents from the May 29 testing. Recent facility-wide testing at the other major skilled nursing homes in the area — New Glarus Home and Pleasant View Nursing Home — also returned all negative test results.

Green County has had one reported facility-wide investigation sparked by an outbreak. On May 5, 167 people were tested at Wisconsin Cheese Group's packaging plant in response to an outbreak among employees. The company worked with Monroe Clinic staff to collect samples for the diagnostic tests.

Big jump in active cases

After several months of low numbers, Lafayette County has seen a big jump in cases in recent weeks.

In the second and third weeks of June, the number of residents with active infections of COVID-19 quadrupled.

As of June 22, the county health department reported 59 total cases, with 45 recovered. That puts Lafayette County's rate of infection based on overall population higher than Green County. On the same day, Green County reported 80 total cases, with 72 recovered. One Green County resident has died from COVID-19.

"Luckily we've seen in our most recent cases people have just had mild symptoms," Townsend said. No one is currently hospitalized. Overall, the county has had seven hospitalizations related to COVID-19.

Townsend sees several explanations for the recent uptick.

First, as access to testing gets easier, more people are able to get tested.

Secondly, the number of cases can go up quickly when a family of three or four or any household of people living together all test positive at once. It's "not all the cases, but that's definitely contributed," she said.

Lastly, "there are a lot of people in the county who are not practicing safe social distancing." Many "just stopped" taking precautions when the extension of the governor's statewide Safer at Home order and the Badger Bounce Back plan for phased reopening were deemed unenforceable by the state Supreme Court in May.

"It's in the community now, and people are getting sick," she said. "I think people need to be following the Badger Bounce Back plan, even though it's not in place anymore."

Staying home and keeping a distance from others is her top advice to prevent spread of the disease, which is transmitted through the mostly invisible respiratory droplets we all spread when talking, laughing, singing, coughing and sneezing.

She's concerned about viral spread by infected people who aren't experiencing symptoms or have such mild symptoms "they just thought it was allergies," especially out in crowded areas around large numbers of people they don't know. That makes contact tracing difficult to impossible.

"Absolutely we have seen cases where the individual has no known exposure," she said.

Townsend has two public health nurses, with one working full-time on contact tracing of COVID-19 cases. The increased workload has put a strain on the whole department.

"It's been really challenging with our small department and our caseload," she said.

The thirst for COVID-19 information from the public, businesses and schools is seemingly unquenchable.

"A lot of my day is trying to answer questions for people, trying to direct them in the right direction. ... I feel like we put out a lot of information but people are still having questions," she said.

For example, schools "are getting a lot of pressure to have a plan" for activities and for the fall semester, but DHS has been slow to give guidance.

"(School officials) look to me, and it would be nearly impossible for me to sit down and write a plan for everybody in the county," across districts, she said. "It's definitely not a job for one person. I'm glad DHS is finally catching up."

Earlier in the year, before the pandemic, she said she asked the county board for approval to hire a nurse to help with providing services at the county jail, but her request was turned down.

"We were already needing the nurse prior to COVID. ... We're doing the best that we can with what we have."