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La Crosse County COVID UPDATE

La Crosse County COVID cases spike, masking stressed but no mandate

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Paul Mueller

Paul Mueller

Representatives from the Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative held a briefing Friday afternoon, issuing another call for vaccination and masking.

The community, says La Crosse County Health Department director Audra Martine, is feeling the impact of the omicron variant, with the case rate quadrupling.

Local hospital leaders Dr. Scott Rathgaber of Gundersen Health System and Dr. Paul Mueller of Mayo Clinic Health System, and School District of La Crosse Superintendent Aaron Engel each touched on the virus’s repercussions in their respective facilities.

At Gundersen Health System, around 40 to 50 hospital beds are being occupied by COVID patients, with 70 to 80% of those individuals unvaccinated. Staff absences due to infection or need to be home with a positive family member have increased three- to four-fold, says Rathgaber.

Hospitals, Rathgaber said, are in an even more difficult place than they were prior to vaccination due to the exponentially more infectious delta and omicron variants. Some elective procedures are being postponed, and there is concern that if COVID hospitalizations continue to rise, the ability to care for individuals with stroke, heart attack and other conditions will be diminished.

Both Rathgaber and Mueller say the hospitals will not deny care or wait list those who are COVID positive and unvaccinated — “We take care of a lot of diseases related to lifestyle choices and we have never made any judgments,” Rathgaber says — but “it is becoming more and more difficult (for staff) to see people come in with (COVID) that could have been avoided.”

It is imperative, Rathgaber says, that “we work together as a community to conserve (hospital) capacity for everyone.”

At Mayo, Mueller says, testing volumes are at peak, and around 40% are coming back positive. At Gundersen, all persons admitted to the hospital are tested for COVID, and of those who were asymptomatic and there for non-COVID reasons, the number infected has more than doubled, from around 4% to over 10%.

“Right now, with this variant and how it spreads so rapidly, when you are out in the community assume other people you see in the community are positive,” Mueller says. He asks the public to “take the situation into their own hands” by masking, vaccinating, have a booster dose if eligible, getting tested, distancing, and avoiding gatherings when possible.

“We have to keep La Crosse open and running and that will only happen if we band together,” Rathgaber notes.

Mayo and Gundersen said they are not mandating a booster dose for staff, but say many staff have already gotten their additional dose as they are committed to their health and that of the community.

Despite large events being held sans masking requirement in La Crosse County, including highly populated sporting tournaments at the La Crosse Center, Martine says there are no current plans to enact a mask mandate. One may, however, be considered if found to be “the best option for La Crosse.”

Martine says the Health Department encourages businesses and venues to ask staff and patrons to wear face coverings, space seats and consider virtual forums for large meetings.

Engel touched on how community spread is affecting La Crosse schools, with Logan Middle School closed for two days due to staffing shortages. Infectious spread within schools has been low, due to masking, sanitation and other mitigation strategies, with non-school settings fueling the majority of transmission.

“We have had a significant rise in staff absences. Student absences have risen exponentially over the last week,” Engel said. “It is more and more challenging to keep our community and schools running with these staffing shortages.”

All efforts are being made not to return to virtual lessons, particularly for elementary students who would require supervision from parents and guardians who need to be at work. If high spread within one school required it to close, it would not affect the other buildings in the district.

There is “no specific case threshold” at which the district would cancel sports and extracurriculars, Engel says, but there is “ongoing evaluation.”

State, local stats

La Crosse County remains in the critically high category for COVID-19 cases, with infections on an upward trajectory.

From Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, the La Crosse County Health Department reported 968 new COVID cases, for an average of 138 per day. Wisconsin on Jan. 6 broke its case record for the third consecutive day, with 11,547 new infections.

In Wisconsin, coronavirus activity is rated critically high for the two-week period ending Jan. 4. The state’s case burden was 1,452.5 per 100,000, with 66% increase in trajectory. La Crosse County had a burden of 1,778 per 100,000.

No county is in the high, medium or low category.

The state as of Jan. 6 had a seven-day average of 6,808 new cases per day for a 25.9% positivity rate. A total of 10,253 deaths were confirmed as of Thursday, including 137 in La Crosse County. Statewide, confirmed cases totaled 1,035,542, with 22,251 among La Crosse County residents.

Per DHS data, in November infections among the unvaccinated or partially vaccinated were at a rate of 3,348.2 per 100,000, with hospitalizations 184 per 100,000 and deaths 35 per 100,000. For those fully vaccinated, those rates were 1,233.2 per 100,000; 17.1 per 100,000; and 2.8 per 100,000, respectively.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported 2,060 current COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Jan. 6, including 475 ICU patients. In the Western region, those numbers were 63 and 11, respectively. For the two-week period ending Jan. 4, DHS reported growth in overall hospitalizations, but no significant change in Western Wisconsin. Statewide 78.3% of hospitals had their ICUS at peak capacity, and 26.4% of ventilators were in use. Across Wisconsin 59 ICU beds were immediately available, but none in the Western region.

In Wisconsin, 58.3% of residents were fully vaccinated as of Jan. 6, as were 64.1% of La Crosse County residents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19 on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021.

Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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