By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — Dunn County is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases that is approaching the possibility of overwhelming the public health system.
As of 4 p.m. Friday, Dunn County had a total of 345 positive cases, of which 132 were active cases of COVID-19, said KT Gallagher, director of the Dunn County public health department and the county’s health officer, during her weekly update via Facebook Live, on Friday, September 18.
As of Monday morning, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website listed Dunn County with 377 total cases of COVID-19.
Community prevalence of the disease is important, and the amount of virus activity is important, Gallagher said.
Of the 132 active cases, there were 10 new cases per day over the previous week, and that is edging toward a “tipping point” set by the Harvard Global Health Institute of 25 new cases per day per 100,000 people, indicating the public health system could be overwhelmed, she said.
Since Dunn County has a population of approximately 50,000 people, the tipping point for Dunn County would be about 12 new cases per day.
Dunn County’s percent of positive cases compared to the number of tests for COVID-19 is high. If the positivity rate is over 10 percent, that’s an indication not enough testing is being done — and Dunn County’s positivity rate has been 12 percent, Gallagher said.
Much of the testing in Dunn County is being done at long-term care facilities and at UW-Stout, and “I believe we are missing some cases,” she said.
Dunn County has a high burden and an increasing trajectory, Gallagher said.
Burden is defined as the total number of cases per 100,000 Wisconsin residents in the last two weeks.
One written question submitted for the update referred to “super-spreader” events and asked whether Gallagher planned to put any additional restrictions on large gatherings.
In spite of the risk of spreading COVID-19, people continue to have weddings, large family gatherings and parties, the writer noted.
If Dunn County reaches a critical 12.5 new cases per day for over a week, Gallagher said she would issue additional guidance for people to stay home.
Another question asked whether Gallagher would continue to advocate for masks in public schools after the state-wide order expires.
“Yes. Yes, I will,” Gallagher said.
Cloth face coverings slow the spread of the coronavirus. People who wear masks consistently also do the other measures that are important, such as good hand hygiene and social distancing, she said.
One person asked about the people from Dunn County who have been hospitalized and whether they have other health problems.
Currently there are two people who are hospitalized long-term with COVID-19, and they do have underlying risk factors for adverse outcomes. The underlying risk factors did not send them to the hospital, but the underlying risk factors are keeping them in the hospital longer and making it more difficult to recover, Gallagher said.
Some of the underlying risk factors for adverse outcomes from COVID-19 include obesity, smoking, being over the age of 60, having a compromised immune system, diabetes and asthma, she said.
Co-morbidity does not put people in the hospital, but it does keep them from getting better faster when they have COVID-19, Gallagher said.
Fear of death
Another person wanted to know why Gallagher was focusing on “the fear of death.”
Gallagher said it was not her intent for people to have a fear of death but that she does want people to know what to do to keep themselves safe and from getting sick, because slowing the spread of COVID-19 is essential to keep the public schools and businesses in Dunn County open.
It is not about the fear of death — it is about understanding your risk, she said.
If you like your life as you know it, then consider curbside pickup for groceries or take-out food and video chat with your grandchildren, Gallagher said.
If you are risk tolerant and do not care if you are sick or do not live with someone who is at risk for adverse outcomes from COVID-19, and if you want to go to bars and parties, “you still know you don’t take it to your 80-year-old grandma,” she said.
COVID-19 is a public health emergency, Gallagher said.
It is not about a fear of death, but rather, it is about making an informed decision to keep yourself, your family and your community safe, she said.
Another person wanted to know if communities would know if there were active cases of COVID-19 in the public schools.
A letter would be sent out to the community to let people know of possible exposure in the school system, and close contacts would be notified immediately, Gallagher said.
Close contacts, in addition to being within six feet of someone for 15 minutes or more, would include touching and hugging, she said.
Public notice to the community is important because of the ability of COVID-19 to have pre-symptomatic spread. Most of the cases of COVID-19 are direct contact or are from an unknown source, Gallagher said.
By and large, the largest risk factor for contracting COVID-19 is living with someone who is infected, she said.
Many of the exposures at places of employment, bars and house parties are before someone knows he or she is sick, Gallagher said.
Dunn County has had cases of COVID-19 ranging from younger than one year up to 89 years old, but there has been a shift in demographics, and the middle age group is now over-represented, with 75 percent of the cases being in people younger than 40, she said.
All together, 45 percent of the cases are in people 20 to 29 years old. People in that age group tend to be highly socially mobile and are also risk tolerant. The socially mobile people who are risk tolerant are taking their germs to people who are not socially mobile, Gallagher said.
If you are risk tolerant and do not think COVID-19 is a big deal, “treat it like it’s a big deal,” she said.
One person asked if UW-Stout was only requiring students who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to self-quarantine just to keep the tuition the students have paid.
Gallagher said she is the reason students are being asked to “stay here and shelter in place.”
If the students “book-it” as soon as they find out they have a positive test result, or if their parents say “come home,” the students could be seeding additional outbreaks in other communities, resulting in additional cases that did not need to happen, she said.
“Isolate where you are. Please. And thank you,” Gallagher said.
After people are tested for COVID-19, they should isolate until they have received the test results. And while someone with COVID-19 might not become very sick, they can most definitely make other people very sick, she said.