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COVID-19 one year later in La Crosse County: Over 12,000 cases, more than 400 hospitalizations and 80 deaths (copy)

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“We anticipated we would have cases in La Crosse County — this is not surprising. We do not need to panic — we knew this would happen.”

On March 18, 2020, the La Crosse County Health Department hosted a press conference to announce the first two cases of the coronavirus had been reported locally.

Jen Rombalski, at the time director of the Health Department, was straightforward in delivering the news. The virus had been detected on the state level a month prior, and as Rombalski iterated, it was only a matter of time before the rapidly spreading disease would hit home.

The case rates remained low at first, with a small spike in the summer before the numbers began climbing rapidly at the start of the fall semester, with positive tests overwhelmingly attributed to the college age demographic.

Then, middle-aged and senior adults began coming down with cases, and the pandemic began to take an extreme toll on the local healthcare system and the community in general. On Nov. 19, cases peaked at a daily total of 298, and the following month 21 fatalities were reported.

Early 2021 brought a reprieve, with cases down to the double digits as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout gained steam. On the anniversary week of the local pandemic, the case rate dropped to a six-month low of 7 per 100,000 per day, and nearly three weeks had gone by since the last coronavirus death was reported.

Through it all, the La Crosse County Health Department, Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System have led the battle against the virus, keeping the community up to date on information — which, given the unprecedented pandemic, at times changed as frequently as hourly.

They administered diligent care to those hospitalized for the virus, showed compassion to the families of those who passed from COVID-19, made sure testing was accessible and readily available, and, over the past the past three months, have taken the lead in providing potentially life saving vaccinations as more and more residents become eligible.

One year later, the guidance remains the same — wear a face mask in public, distance from non-household members, wash your hands — with vaccination encouraged now that shots have been approved.

12 months of COVID-19: A look back

  • March 18, 2020: Two women, one in her 20s and one in her 40s and residing in separate households, are diagnosed with COVID-19, the first local positives. It is expected, the Health Department says, that those who share their households will contract the virus.
  • April 3: CDC advises all individuals wear face masks; La Crosse County Health Department encourages following the guidance
  • May 21: The Health Department and Wisconsin National Guard hold first local drive through testing site in Onalaska
  • May 29: Coulee COVID-19 Compass is launched to assess risk and give recommendations
  • June 15: County identifies first cases contracted via community spread
  • June: County begins seeing double digits of cases, averaging 26 a day
  • July 8: County launches “Check the Spread” campaign encouraging businesses to have staff wear masks and distance and limit capacity
  • July 17: First local COVID-19 death is reported, a male in his 70s
  • July 30: Gov. Tony Evers issues mask mandate
  • August 7: Health Department, Gundersen and Mayo launch Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative with metrics to assess risk
  • September: Cases spike, entering the triple digits, with an average of 150 new cases per day, the majority among those age 18-24
  • October: COVID-19 hospitalizations rise, 17 deaths are reported during the month
  • Oct. 16: Health Department issues advisory limiting capacity at public indoor spaces to 25%
  • Nov. 5: Free surge testing site opens at UW-La Crosse, offering antigen tests to anyone five and older
  • Nov. 11: Gov. Evers issues “Stay at home” order
  • Mid November: Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative urges community members not to host or attend holiday gatherings
  • Mid November: Gundersen opens third COVID unit to keep up with hospitalized patients
  • Mid November: Mayo opens COVID-19 outpatient therapy center
  • Nov. 19: Daily cases reach a record high, with 298 confirmed
  • December 2020: The county reports 21 deaths in a single month, many among elderly residents living in long-term care facilities
  • Dec. 11: The two dose Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is approved
  • Dec. 18: The Moderna two dose vaccine is approved
  • Dec. 21: The Pfizer vaccine arrives locally, and the first shots are administered to frontline workers
  • Late December: Long term care residents and staff begin being vaccinated
  • Jan. 25: Adults 65 and older are eligible for vaccination
  • Feb. 2: Health Department receives vaccine doses
  • Feb. 5: Health Department hosts first vaccine clinic
  • Feb. 11: Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative puts strategy level at medium, allows businesses to open to 75% capacity
  • Feb. 19: Health Department director Jen Rombalski serves last day before starting new a position as director of Office of Policy and Practice Alignment at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Associate county administrator Jane Klekamp is appointed interim health director
  • Feb. 27: The Johnson and Johnson one dose vaccine is approved
  • Feb. 28: Case rate drops to average of 15 per day
  • March 1: State opens vaccine eligibility to school and childcare workers, those enrolled in Medicaid long term programs, some public facing essential workers, non-frontline essential healthcare workers, and those in congregate living settings, with first priority given to certain groups
  • March 2: DHS reports La Crosse has reached 80 deaths
  • March 5: First vaccine clinic for education staff held at Onalaska High School
  • March 9: Community Vaccination Clinic, through a partnership with the State, opens at UWL
  • March 11: Viral genome sequencing conducted by Gundersen identifies the B.1.1.7 (U.K.) variant in a La Crosse County case and two each in Allamakee and Adams counties
  • March 16: Mayo Clinic Health System reports no hospitalized COVID-19 patients for the first time since March 23, 2020
  • March 17: Health Department, Gundersen vaccinate homeless individuals
  • March 18, 2021: Eight cases are confirmed for a running total of 12,328 positives. Deaths total 80, 414 La Crosse County residents have been hospitalized, COVID-19 tests have reached 66,583 and 50,738 vaccine doses have been given

Midwestern states are preparing to scale up their distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine as quickly as possible, to as many people as possible, now that the vaccine supply provided through the federal government seems assured.

Emily Pyrek can be reached at


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