COVID-19 cases around the country, including in the Coulee Region, are once again skyrocketing, mirroring the crisis seen earlier in the pandemic in some ways. And while some protocols are beginning to return, some officials have issued concern that messaging and mandates have not been as powerful or sweeping as once before.
To date, more than 15,000 La Crosse County residents have contracted COVID-19, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and county data highlight that the latest spike has been overwhelmingly in individuals who are unvaccinated.
Hospitals are once again overwhelmed in the area, and after a summer of no fatalities, about six La Crosse County residents have died as a result of COVID-19 in the past few weeks alone, and the county has now reached 100 total deaths.
Who is getting sick is changing, too, and more young, healthy people are contracting more severe disease under the delta variant.
In response, starting next week the La Crosse County Board will return to fully virtual meetings for a month, and re-evaluate returning to in-person on a monthly basis depending on COVID conditions in the community.
But other, more stringent protocols hang in the balance.
La Crosse County Health Department director Audra Martine told the board at a planning meeting Monday night that it had been advising organizers to cancel events since early August, which surprised several supervisors.
“I’m kind of concerned about how this is kind of being disseminated, and is there enough publicity about this? Should there be more?” said supervisor Peg Isola. “It’s just concerning that you know, you’ve been telling people to cancel events.”
Martine told the board that events are among the top places where community spread is happening in La Crosse County, and that it has encouraged, but not enforced, cancellations at this point.
“For the last several weeks our recommendation has been to cancel if you can,” Martine said. If event organizers are “unable to cancel or unwilling to cancel,” she said, the department instead encourages mitigation such as vaccine proof, or proof of a negative test, as well as masking and distancing.
“I think sometimes people think, ‘I’m safe because I’m only trying one thing. I only go to one place, it’s my place where I go to be comfortable and feel like my life kind of came back.’ Many of these things or those types of events,” Martine said, “unfortunately we’re seeing a lot of cases come from them.”
This news comes in the height of festival season, and many fall events, parades, fairs and more are on the calendars. One of La Crosse’s largest events, Oktoberfest, will hit city streets at the end of the month, and it typically brings in tens of thousands of visitors. As of Wednesday, Oktoberfest had not announced any COVID-19 protocols for its event.
County supervisors issued concerns with the response to current pandemic conditions, questioning if case rates and severity mirror that of a year ago, why don’t the precautions?
“You walk into Menards, you walk into Kwik Trip, and nobody’s masking. And you can see the numbers yourself when you listen to the concerns about the number of health care beds that are available in our county,” said supervisor Rick Cornforth. “It’s no joking matter.”
One supervisor questioned the message the board would be sending with its upcoming Wisconsin Counties Association Annual Conference that is being held at the La Crosse Center later this month.
“I just have some concern that as community leaders we aren’t setting the example that our health department is telling us is the best one, which is to cancel events that aren’t critical,” said supervisor Dawn Wacek.
“All these events are still happening, the community is still out in all of the restaurants, in all of the bars, we aren’t telling people they have to mask, we aren’t telling them that they have to cancel events,” Wacek said. “So I just think that we need to maybe take a stronger stance as a county board.”
Officials said that cancelling the conference would be in the hands of the WCA and the La Crosse Center, and that the health department was in communication with organizers. Supervisors are not required to attend the conference.
Several officials questioned whether another mask mandate, group size limitation or similar mandates could be implemented within the county. Cornforth said he was in Dane County over the weekend where a mask mandate is currently in place, saying the scene was the “opposite” of La Crosse County, where he’s seldom seeing masks worn in public.
County leaders said that responses are more complex than they were before as they evaluate the legal ability for the county to both mandate and enforce things such as masks, and they reassured the board that they were looking into options.
In Dane County, its health department is in charge of fielding complaints about violations of its mask mandate, which requires most people to wear a mask in indoor, public settings. Businesses are also required to post signs indicating masks are mandated in the establishment.
But La Crosse County officials said they were still evaluating how exactly the county enforces the mandate, and that it was looking to several different counties to understand what personnel and tools are used for enforcement.
Officials said they were also looking into whether another emergency order would give the board more authority on protocols.
Still, Martine emphasized the careful, societal balance required when making COVID protocols.
“Needing to understand how this is impacting everybody and their interests is really, really important. I think just putting out a bunch of rules is probably not the best way to quickly have someone understand what we’re trying to accomplish, and sometimes understanding what they need also helps,” Martine said.
She said that the La Crosse County Coulee COVID Collaborative, which meets every two weeks right now, discusses how to balance safety measures with the needs of schools, businesses and more.
A new initiative to have businesses promote mask wearing on their own is underway at the county level, which would encourage businesses to hang up signs saying, “we are masking for you, please mask for us.”
“You both want to serve the public, who has varying opinions, as well as keep people safe,” Martine said.
On Thursday at the final Moon Tunes show of the season, The Sprout for Kids Foundation will donate $12,169 to The Valley View Rotary for future improvements to the band shell and Riverside Park.
A check presentation will take place during the night with the music of Mr. Blink and Flibbertijibbet hitting the stage.
Since 2009, Pearl Street Brewery and On Three Print + Design has been raising funds for La Crosse area families, schools and organizations through the Sprout for Kids Foundation and has been integral in the planning and fundraising of the new bandstand and band shell improvements.
Sprout for Kids is a 501©3 nonprofit that is 100% volunteer run, and all the dollars raised go right to where they are needed. Since its inception Sprout for Kids Foundation has worked with a multitude of area nonprofits and organizations including; Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Club, Hunger Task Force, Valley View Rotary, Rotary After Hours, Joe Was Just Joe Foundation, Kiwanis, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Kane Street Community Garden, The North La Crosse Business Association, New Horizons and many more.
The mu variant is the latest to spark headlines in the coronavirus pandemic, but for now the delta strain remains the biggest concern.
Mu, also known as B.1621, is classified as a variant of interest by the World Health Organization, and for the week ending Sept. 4 it made up only 0.01% of cases in the U.S., per the CDC, while delta strains accounted for 99.1% of infections.
Stateside, four variants are classified as being of concern: alpha, beta, delta and gamma.
“The delta variant is really the predominant strain everywhere at this point. And while it is important that scientists and public health officials keep an eye on this, we’re still in a space right now where the mu variant is something to keep an eye on for the future rather than a concern,” says Dr. John O’Horo, infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic.
La Crosse County Health Department director Audra Martine during a La Crosse County Board meeting Monday also affirmed closely following mu and other emerging variants is not currently a priority.
“They’re out there, we’re kind of paying attention to them, but I think we’ve been advised to really pay attention to delta because it’s hitting pretty hard,” Martine said. “And we have to pay attention to that right now because it’s everywhere.”
Delta continues to drive spikes in case rates, believed to be twice as contagious as the original variants. Delta first appeared in India in December 2020, while mu was discovered last January in Columbia. New variants will continue to emerge as the pandemic continues.
“Each of these variants is classified, in part, based on the number of mutations they have around the virus itself and some of these viral mutations around something called the spike protein, which is what it uses to actually enter the cells and cause infection,” O’Horo. “And that’s also the target of many of the vaccines.”
Currently, in the U.S. there are no variants designated as being of “high consequence,” but delta infections can cause more severe symptoms and is more easily spread than other strains, infecting even vaccinated individuals. However, for the fully inoculated, contracting the disease is less likely and the risk of hospitalization or death is significantly lower.
The evolution of the virus means there may be future strains that are impervious to vaccines.
“The further that these change from the original, the more concern there is that it may evade some of the immune systems around that spike protein,” O’Horo says. “We can still see with the delta variant that vaccines are still able to connect with this and neutralize this at a high enough level to prevent hospitalizations and severe infections. As we look at things like the mu variant, the concern and the question that’s still unanswered is how much have these drifted in.”
Vaccination is key to not only reducing spread and infection but helping prevent new mutations to the virus. Individuals 12 and older are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, and adults can receive the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson and Johnson versions.
“Vaccination against the variant still remains highly effective,” O’Horo says. “We can see nationwide that areas with high rates of vaccination are not hit as hard by the delta variant. And that helps make sure that hospitals and clinics are not overwhelmed, as well as keeps individuals safe.”
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services on Wednesday reported the state’s highest case rate since January, with two counties moving into the critically high category.
Overall disease activity levels in Wisconsin remain very high, with a burden of 489.1 per 100,000 during the period of Sept. 1-14 and a trajectory of +20%. During the same span, La Crosse County had a burden of 536.6 per 100,000 and a growing trajectory, per DHS. Two counties — Buffalo and Forest — are now in the critically high category.
In Wisconsin, 687,098 cases have now been confirmed, as have 7,791 deaths, including 16 fatalities on Wednesday alone. As of Sept. 15, the seven-day average for COVID-19 cases was 1,864 per day, for a percent positive of 7%. On Wednesday, 3,989 new cases were added.
In La Crosse County, cases have reached 14,365, and there have been 99 confirmed and two probable deaths. The La Crosse County Health Department confirmed 238 cases between Sept. 5-11, averaging 34 per day, along with two deaths.
From Sept. 1-14, DHS reported growing hospitalizations in two regions, with 22.4% of ventilators in use and 53.6% of ICUs at full capacity. Western Wisconsin’s hospitalizations showed no significant change.
On Sept. 14, the seven-day moving average for hospitalized COVID patients in Wisconsin was 1,048, with 12.9% on ventilators. As of Tuesday, the Wisconsin Hospital Association reported 1,055 current COVID hospitalizations, including 314 patients in the ICU. In the Western region, those numbers were 52 and 11, respectively.
As of Wednesday, the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene had identified 4,263 cases of the delta variant through sequencing, surpassing alpha at 3,577. A total of 1,507 samples were sequenced in August, and in total during the pandemic 20,977 samples have been sequenced.
Statewide, 52.6% of Wisconsin residents had completed the vaccine series as of Wednesday, with La Crosse County at 58.4%.
Individuals 12 and older may get the Pfizer vaccine, and adults are eligible for the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson and Johnson versions. Booster doses of Pfizer or Moderna are available to the immunocompromised.
Local vaccine providers include Mayo Clinic Health System, Gundersen Health System, Weber Health Logistics, the La Crosse County Health Department, Walgreens, Walmart, and select pop up/event sites. Contact your provider of choice for hours, days and brands available, or visit www.vaccines.gov or call 1-800-232-0233.