A third Eau Claire County resident has died of the novel coronavirus, Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said Wednesday. The person was older than 65 and had underlying health conditions.

It is the second COVID-19-related death of a county resident announced this week.

The county’s second death was announced Monday, a woman under 50 with underlying health conditions who had been hospitalized with the virus and died Saturday.

The county’s first death from COVID-19 was confirmed June 22. That person was also older than 65 and had underlying health conditions.

Three deaths in the county spur “some significant negative impacts,” Giese said Wednesday at a news conference, referring to local health care capability. “We need to keep the progression slow so the impact, like a death or hospitalization, is as minimal as possible.”

For the first time on Wednesday, the Health Department announced how many county residents have been hospitalized due to COVID-19: 21 people, or about 5% of the county’s 409 cases, have been hospitalized with the virus at some point.

It’s below the state average. Nine percent of the state’s nearly 45,000 COVID-19 cases have required hospitalization, and about 2% have undergone intensive care, according to the state Department of Health Services.

The number of county residents who have been hospitalized — 21 — doesn’t include residents of other counties who are hospitalized in the Eau Claire area, Giese noted.

Local cases ‘plateau a bit’

The county reported two new cases of the virus Wednesday. The county’s total has hit 409 cases, 351 of which have recovered.

Case increases have slowed somewhat since Sunday, interrupting a trend of 10-plus new cases per day.

“Our rapidly increasing case numbers have plateaued a bit,” Giese said. “That’s a good sign. We’re still getting many new cases ... but we aren’t getting the big spikes and big increases in numbers.”

Some countywide metrics that were in the red last week are looking better as of Wednesday.

According to data compiled Monday, the number of new cases in the last two weeks is down by 12% compared to new cases during the two weeks before that. (Last Monday, that same metric was up by 51%.)

The county’s test-positivity rate — or the percentage of all its COVID-19 tests that come back positive — is also down, 3.7% this week compared to 5.3% last week.

But one important metric is trending the wrong way. Nearly half of all county residents with COVID-19, 43%, told contact tracers they didn’t know where they could have contracted the virus, and that they hadn’t had contact with a known case.

It’s the first time the percentage of “community spread” cases has gone up since late June, when it hovered around 35% for several weeks.

That increase means that the Health Department is considering Eau Claire County a place with “strong community spread,” Giese said.

County residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two weeks have reported an average of four close contacts, according to county data.

Countywide order to stay the same

A new countywide order will go into effect after midnight Thursday, but it is identical to the previous order — no restrictions on gatherings and social distancing will change, Giese said.

The order doesn’t require people to wear masks in public, but the Health Department is “working through what a potential (mask) mandate might look like” with county and city officials, Giese said.

“My real goal is to have a very high percentage of people in this community that understand if we want … to not have the kind of outcomes we’re seeing in places like Florida and Texas right now, that this is a strategy that’s been shown to work,” Giese said of wearing masks in public spaces.

In the new order, businesses will still be required to consider mask policies, and businesses must operate at maximum 50% capacity. Businesses that must post occupancy are restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, courtrooms and gyms.

For public gatherings, the limits are still 100 people indoors and 250 people outdoors. The order does strongly discourage events with more than 50 people.

The Health Department’s COVID-19 call center can be reached at 715-831-7425.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter