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La Crosse County Health Department reports 15 new cases of COVID-19, asks businesses to sign 'Check the Spread' pledge
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La Crosse County Health Department reports 15 new cases of COVID-19, asks businesses to sign 'Check the Spread' pledge

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La Crosse County moved into the high-risk COVID-19 category Wednesday, ending a two-week streak in the severe sector.

The Coulee COVID-19 Compass, which bases risk level on factors of health care, epidemiology and public health status, dropped to the orange category due to the 9.96% decrease in cases from the two-week period prior and increase in case doubling time from 10.5 to 16.5 days. 

In total, La Crosse County has had 536 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 15 new cases Wednesday. The patients range in age from teens to 70s, with seven cases attributed to individuals in their 20s. 

One person is currently being hospitalized due to the virus, and there have been no related deaths. 

Of all cases as of July 7, 46.8% contracted the virus through close contact, 45.5% via community spread and 7.8% from travel.

Of those infected, 37.8% reported having been in a public space prior to developing symptoms, and 27.3% were out in public before and after experiencing symptoms.

In 56.4% of total cases, symptoms were mild, 25.9% experienced moderate symptoms, 3.7% had severe symptoms, 5.1% were asymptomatic and 8.8% had unreported symptom levels.

In Wisconsin, cases increased by 598 for a total of 33,154. There have been 3,683 hospitalizations and 807 deaths. The running total for negative tests for COVID-19 is 611,150.

During a press conference Wednesday, Jen Rombalski, director of the La Crosse County Health Department, announced a new initiative called "Check the Spread," developed in partnership with the Weber Group, Downtown Main Street Inc., La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce, La Crosse Area Development Corporation, Explore La Crosse, Mayo Clinic Health System and Gundersen Health System.

Businesses are invited to sign a pledge to protect employees and customers, which entails following six guidelines:

  • Promote employee health by implementing a monitoring system for COVID-19 symptoms prior to each workday and require employees to remain at home when symptomatic (even if mild).
  • Require staff to wear masks at all times, and post signage encouraging customers to wear masks
  • Ask all customers who develop symptoms of COVID-19, or know they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, to remain at home.
  • Implement increased safe sanitation practices regularly by following the CDC guidelines for business.
  • Ensure place of business meets physical distance guidelines of six feet or more, and post signage encouraging customers to observe physical distancing.
  • Provide hand sanitizer at all entrances and hand-washing stations for employees and customers. 

As of July 8, about two dozen local businesses or entities had signed the pledge, viewable at www.checkthespread.org. The website also provides resources for businesses from organizations including the CDC and WEDC.

Return to school?

During the press conference, Rombalski addressed media and community questions regarding the resuming of schools in the fall and the potential local mandating of wearing masks in public.

Of the former, Rombalski says a Health Department liaison has been sitting in on the weekly meetings with school district officials and it is believed local schools will relay a decision on the format of education early next month. Rombalski said, "I do think we should be in school. I do think we should be prepared, though, for some mixture of virtual and in-person classes.

"Having individuals in a classroom is really important for some students," Rombalski, who serves on a school board and notes some youth have difficulty staying engaged or up to speed on subjects without in-class engagement. "I think having kids be in school is such a critical part of our community."

There needs to be "flex," however, Rombalski says, with plans in place should a student be diagnosed with the coronavirus and safety standards set in terms of capacity and sanitation. The safety of school sporting events will also need to be considered, with social distancing and travel facets of concern.

In terms of the college demographic, Rombalski says the Health Department is working to relay the importance of masking when fall semester resumes. The 20-30 age range continues to be La Crosse's most infected age group for COVID-19.

Mask ordinance?

Addressing the issuance of mask-wearing ordinances in places including Dane County, Rombalski said the La Crosse County Health Department is looking to "Understand more about the authority related to health officers in Wisconsin" and noted, "At this time, to be really clear, we do not believe we have the authority to write a countywide order." Such an order, Rombalski said, would also be difficult to enforce. 

In addition, she noted, "We can't just ask the government to solve the problem," with community members responsible for following health and safety guidelines. 

Rombalski acknowledged the back and forth between the Health Department and city government in terms of order issuance regarding COVID-19 precautions, and says she has been in discussion with La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat to reach an understanding on actions that can and can't be taken. 

Rombalski urged community members  to wear a mask in public of their own volition as a courtesy to themselves and others. It is a safety tool, she says, that "we're not maximizing." 

Reiterated Rombalski, "Wearing a face covering is not political." 

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

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