Directing traffic at COVID-19 testing site

UW-Eau Claire Police Chief Jay Dobson directs traffic at the Memorial High School parking lot, the site of free drive-up community COVID-19 testing.

EAU CLAIRE — The Eau Claire City-County Health Department said it will follow the state’s direction after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new recommendation Wednesday for people exposed to COVID-19 to undergo a shorter quarantine period.

Until Wednesday, the CDC recommended that people who’d been in close contact with a positive case quarantine for 14 days, since the virus can incubate for two to 14 days before symptoms show, the CDC has said. (For most people, symptoms appear four to five days after exposure, the agency has also said.)

But Eau Claire County will follow the decision of the state Department of Health Services on whether or not they’ll begin recommending shorter quarantines, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

The Eau Claire Health Department hopes to have a verdict this week or early next week, she said.

“Because we’re a local health department in a state where the requirement for us is to follow state guidance from state epidemiologists … we’re working with the state now as they’re making decisions based on the CDC guidance,” Giese said.

The CDC this week said people who have been in contact with someone infected with COVID-19 can resume normal activity after 10 days if they don’t show symptoms — or after seven days if they get a negative test result.

A close contact, or someone considered to have been exposed to COVID-19, means someone who’s spent a cumulative 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of a person who then tested positive, even if masks were worn.

Quarantining for 14 days is still considered “the gold standard,” according to the CDC.

But the burden of a two-week-long quarantine may reduce people’s compliance, the agency wrote Wednesday. The prospect of staying home for two weeks may also “dissuade recently diagnosed persons from naming contacts” and deter people from responding to contact tracers, the agency said.

Local public health authorities still determine quarantine options for the states, cities and towns they oversee, the CDC said Wednesday.

Quarantine is not the same as isolation, Giese cautioned at a press conference on Thursday.

Quarantine refers to someone who may have been exposed to the virus. Isolation refers to the two weeks someone who has already tested positive for the virus must spend away from work and public places.

“It’s a very contagious disease and if you’re a close contact, there’s a high likelihood you’re also going to be a positive case,” Giese said. “Because many people are asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic initially, stay home so you don’t spread to any other people in that incubation period.”

In national COVID-19 news, the U.S. recorded over 3,100 deaths from the coronavirus in a single day Wednesday, obliterating the record set last spring, while the number of Americans in the hospital with the virus has eclipsed 100,000 for the first time and new cases have begun topping 200,000 a day, according to figures released Thursday.

New cases still on downtick in EC County

Eau Claire County is still reporting far fewer cases of COVID-19 each day than it was in November. It reported 47 new cases Thursday.

On Thursday, the county’s seven-day average was 56 cases per day. At its highest point in mid-November, the county’s average was 207 cases per day.

“It’s a good thing,” Giese said. “But our seven-day average for daily cases is still well over what we’re hoping for … anything over 30 cases a day is still considered very high disease activity.”

Three more county residents died of COVID-19 in the last week, bringing total deaths to 59. Another 11 county residents were hospitalized in the last week, for a total of 248 ever hospitalized with the coronavirus.

Despite fewer cases reported per day, testing in Eau Claire County has decreased significantly, and the test-positivity rate has only decreased slightly — meaning that even though fewer tests are being done, almost the same percentage of them are coming back positive.

The county reported about 1,400 tests in the last seven days. In the week before, about 2,600 tests were done, and about 3,800 the week before that.

The county’s test-positivity rate sat at 28% on Wednesday, down from 33% a week ago, according to county data.

Experts have said measuring the test-positivity rate is a more accurate metric to gauge the spread of the virus than looking at daily case increases.

“There are a number of reasons why that happened,” Giese said of the decrease in testing. “Some testing locations were closed Thanksgiving Day, and the National Guard site also closed the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Fewer people may have gotten tested during the business of a holiday week, Giese added.

“Today there were some conversation that there may be some perception that testing is no longer needed, now that vaccinations are available,” Giese said Wednesday. “I want to make it clear: Vaccinations are not available and won’t be for some time for the general public. We need to keep doing basic strategies that will keep us safer.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.