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DC Public Health COVID-19 update: “Keep it to a slow burn rather than a wildfire.”

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE  — Dunn County increased from nine cases of COVID-19 the week before to 14 as of May 8.

KT Gallagher, Dunn County’s public health officer, described the county’s total number of cases as “a slow burn.”

“We want to keep it at a slow burn rather than a wildfire,” Gallagher said during her weekly COVID-19 update broadcast via Facebook Live May 8.

Western Wisconsin has not seen the exponential increase in cases of the highly contagious novel coronavirus that have occurred in other parts of the state because people have been good at social distancing and good at hygiene practices, such as frequent hand washing, Gallagher said.

The five new cases of COVID-19 in Dunn County since the previous Friday are attributed to clusters in Eau Claire that are occurring at an essential business, she said.

Public health officials have been doing aggressive contact tracing for both clusters and have been impressing upon people who have come in contact with the positive cases that they must self-quarantine for 14 days, Gallagher said.

While the rate of testing has increased in Dunn County, and people who are symptomatic can be tested for COVID-19, the increased number of cases is not attributed to increased testing, she said.

Public health officials expect to see increased numbers of positive cases when the rate of testing increases.

Questions

During the week, members of the public can submit questions for Gallagher to answer at the next weekly update.

One person wondered why is it all right to re-open businesses when the virus is still here and the number of cases is increasing?

Under the Wisconsin Department of Health Services “Safer at Home” order issued March 24, which was set to expire April 24 but has been extended to May 26, non-essential businesses, such as hair salons and fitness centers have been closed, while businesses like bars and restaurants are allowed to only do take-out orders.

The situation of trying to keep people safe from the virus while at the same time allowing businesses to re-open and resume economic activity is difficult, Gallagher said.

The reason Wisconsin can start to think about opening businesses again is because “we have flattened the curve,” she said.

The goal of Safer at Home was to keep the increase in positive COVID-19 cases at a slow increase rather than an exponential spike that would overwhelm healthcare systems.

Western Wisconsin now has an increased capacity to care for those people who are infected with COVID-19 and may need to be hospitalized. Additional Personal Protective Equipment has been added for healthcare providers to keep them from getting COVID-19. PPE conservation methods are available to decontaminate filtration masks. Guidance has been provided on how to open safely by the Badger Bounce Back Plan, Gallagher said.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation also has developed guidelines for different businesses to help them open safely, she said.

Businesses are not ready to be opened just yet, but guidelines have been developed to help the businesses keep customers and workers safe when they do start to open, Gallagher said.

Be that as it may, “if you don’t feel safe, it’s up to you to make that personal choice,” she said.

The recommendations are that people in high risk categories, such as those who are over the age of 60 or those with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma or high blood pressure, should continue to stay at home. Severe illness with COVID-19 tends to occur more in older people or in people with underlying health conditions.

If someone does not feel safe returning to work, that person should talk to the human resources person at their place of employment, Gallagher said.

Even as businesses start to re-open, people will still need to do social distancing and to have good hand hygiene and good respiratory hygiene, she said.

Antibody testing

Another question noted that some people who were quite ill in December or January are certain they have already been infected with COVID-19. To find out if people really were infected, when will antibody testing be available in Dunn County?

There are two kinds of testing — nasal swabs to find out if people have an active infection and antibody testing to find out if people have already had the disease, Gallagher said.

Some antibody tests are available that can be ordered and delivered to your house, but Gallagher said those tests are questionable and she would not recommend using them.

Other antibody tests have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and are available through medical providers, she said.

Gallagher recommends that if someone wants to have an antibody test to contact his or her medical provider.

Antibody tests are not diagnostic, and even if someone does have antibodies to COVID-19, that does not mean you are immune to the disease, Gallagher said.

Having COVID-19 antibodies does not tell whether the person could get sick with COVID-19 again if exposed to the disease again, she said.

Epidemiologists are currently working to determine if having COVID-19 antibodies confer immunity, and if so, for how long? The common cold is caused by a coronavirus, but human beings do not develop immunity to the common cold virus.

Another person wanted to know how many of the new cases in Dunn County were people who were previously exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 but could not get tested.

None of the five new cases in the Dunn County cluster were sick before and could not get tested. The new cases were all associated with known cases of COVID-19, Gallagher said.

More cases

As businesses re-open, there will be more new cases of COVID-19, Gallagher said.

Dunn County Public Health has developed a graphic that explains contact tracing, she said.

The graphic is available on the Dunn County Public Health Facebook page.

When people stay at home and limit their contacts, or if someone in the household must still work at an essential business, people doing contact tracing can get in touch with all of those who have been exposed, and they should self-quarantine to stop the spread of the germs, Gallagher said.

But if people go where there are large groups of people and “where you don’t know the names of the people who were there,” contact tracing is impossible, she said.

Contact tracing is effective at keeping the disease from spreading, Gallagher said.

“It is important to keep things small,” she said.

So far, Western Wisconsin has been lucky, and Dunn County has not lost anyone to COVID-19, she said.

“We want to keep it that way. If you can stay home, please do,” Gallagher said.

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