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New La Crosse County COVID-19 risk assessment tool will be a 'snapshot,' not a 'dial'
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COVID-19 | OUTBREAK IN THE COULEE REGION

New La Crosse County COVID-19 risk assessment tool will be a 'snapshot,' not a 'dial'

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La Crosse County officials and health care leaders unveiled the beginning stages of a new COVID-19 risk assessment tool on Friday, which is set to replace the Coulee Region COVID-19 Compass.

The tool will move away from the idea of one “dial” that dictates risk for everyone in the community, and instead the county will use a harder forecasting model and evaluate the data with health care partners to assess the risk each week — providing a more nuanced assessment and a more accurate snapshot.

“This is a movement from a risk assessment tool to a collaborative risk assessment process,” said La Crosse County Health Department director Jen Rombalski.

The new tool will use nine metrics based on public health and health care to navigate what type of risk of the virus exists in the county.

The metrics were not all finalized as of Friday afternoon, but will include daily case rates, hospitalizations, hospital capacity and readiness, testing, contact tracing and more.

“This is how we get the best solutions,” said Dr. Scott Rathgaber, CEO of Gundersen Health Systems, about remaining flexible during the pandemic.

“There is no playbook for us to follow on the pandemic,” he said.

Officials said the compass was successful and accurate, but that as they learn more about the virus, the processes and vehicle for information should adapt, too.

“We were very conservative in our approach,” when the pandemic first emerged, said Dr. Paul Mueller, regional vice president, Mayo Clinic Health System, noting protocols such as limited visitors and extra safety measures.

“That compass was appropriately conservative early on,” he said, “and as we’ve learned more, we’re now pivoting to a new process based on the knowledge that we have.”

The Coulee Region COVID-19 Compass was also one of the first risk assessment tools in the country when it was launched, and since its beginning, more tools are available that La Crosse is looking to for improvement.

“We didn’t have that knowledge early on,” Mueller added, “we have a lot of knowledge now.”

The new tool won’t act exactly the same as the Compass, as the way it informs La Crosse’s six surrounding counties is still unclear.

“We hope to provide information and support to the broader community,” Rathgaber said, noting that it was important to provide this guidance because both Gundersen and Mayo serve patients across the region.

What does it mean for schools?

The School District of La Crosse recently announced it would start its school year off virtually, and would use the compass to reevaluate reopening throughout the year — and the new tool will serve the same purpose.

“Schools have based plans on the compass, but we’re not asking them to change,” Rathgaber said, calling the existing school plans sound.

“So it doesn’t really change their timeline,” he said, “it just provides them with a better metric and a better tool to keep making the good decisions they’ve been making.”

Decisions like this are part of the reason the tool is being revamped, as officials realize that the risk level is not the same for every person and every facility.

“Our responses in nursing homes may have to be a lot different than it is in schools or in general,” said La Crosse County Administrator Steve O’Malley.

The compass previously listed guidelines for varying entities based on risk, but this new tool will help address risk within each unique space and individual better, clearly defining how things like high schools can proceed compared to a day-care facility.

Though the tool has changed, general recommendations such as handwashing, wearing a mask, social distancing and staying home if sick still remain.

“We’re just changing the process and the way that we share information about COVID-19 in particular. So that we can be as flexible as possible,” Rombalski said, “which really is the most important aspect of COVID-19 — is to remain flexible.”

“Because we have to get it as right as possible, and as things change and shift that requires flexibility,” Rombalski said.

New risk levels will now be announced by the health department and partnering health care providers every Friday.

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