COVID-19 Testing

A member of the Wisconsin National Guard administers a swab test on May 11 at the Prevea Health Clinic in Eau Claire.

With 28 new cases found over the weekend and another 10 on Monday, Eau Claire County is seeing its biggest spike yet in COVID-19 cases.

On Friday, the county had identified 180 cases. As of Monday afternoon, cases had surged to 218, according to county data.

“This weekend illustrates what we’ve been trying to avoid,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, at a Monday press conference. “...We are really challenged with cases increasing in this community in a rapid way, and we don’t think it’s going to stop unless we really work on keeping our circles small.”

Giese attributed most of the new cases of the virus to county residents failing to stay six feet apart, and not wearing cloth face coverings when keeping their distance is impossible.

“A lot of the cases we’ve been seeing in the last couple weeks could have been avoided by keeping that distance, especially in those small gatherings,” Giese said.

Of the county’s 218 cases, 69 people have active cases and 149 have recovered, Giese said. One county resident has died of the virus, a person over 65 with underlying health conditions.

Eau Claire County’s western Wisconsin metro cousin to the south, La Crosse County, saw a similar scenario weeks earlier. Cases there began to balloon rapidly in early June.

It’s unclear if the case jumps in Eau Claire County will follow the other county’s lead. By June 17, La Crosse County had 173 cases of the virus; as of Monday, it had 428, according to the La Crosse County Health Department.

“La Crosse County was well under 100 cases a few weeks ago, and they’re now at over 400 cases,” Giese said. “...When the young and healthy get sick, and choose to spread the disease by not staying home and not getting tested, they’re making choices that impact all of us. We’re asking the community to lean in and say that we care about each other, and we’re going to slow down the spread of disease.”

Cause of new cases unclear

Giese didn’t tie the county’s big spikes in new cases to any particular event — including holiday celebrations, businesses reopening or recent rallies in western Wisconsin — but said “it appears most of our spread is happening because people aren’t following the (public health) order in Eau Claire County, or the public health recommendations that occur in every county.”

People with mild symptoms “are choosing to be out and about, and choosing not to follow those public health rules,” she said.

Eau Claire County’s public health order, which was loosened on Friday, now allows up to 100 people at indoor gatherings and 250 people at outdoor gatherings. But even at gatherings, the order dictates people still follow the six-foot social distancing rule, Giese said last week.

County and CDC data suggest that Eau Claire County’s weekend case bump isn’t directly tied to recent events in the Chippewa Valley that drew hundreds: protests of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Rallies and protests of Floyd’s death that amassed hundreds of attendees were held in Eau Claire on May 31, June 4 and June 5, or about three weeks ago.

Symptoms of the virus typically appear two to 14 days after exposure, according to the CDC.

Cases in Eau Claire County began increasing more significantly around June 26 (although the reporting of new cases is delayed by about one day, as the county is now sending its case data to the state Department of Health Services before reporting it publicly, Giese said last month).

Nationally, protests of Floyd’s death − many of which drew tens of thousands of people outdoors − so far haven’t seemed to magnify COVID-19 outbreaks, though experts are cautious to say they didn’t have any indirect impact, USA Today reported on June 22: Large protests were just as common in U.S. counties without outbreaks as counties that did see outbreaks, although experts say virus spread at protests could have been evened out by people who increasingly stayed at home.

Statewide increase

Cases are rising in parallel statewide. Hospitalizations in Wisconsin are still well below a peak the state hit in early April, the Wisconsin State Journal reported, but the state’s seven-day new case average has risen every day for the last week, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Wisconsin reported 315 new cases on Monday, just over 28,000 cases of the virus in total. No new deaths were reported Monday; 777 Wisconsin residents have died of the virus.

Dunn and Chippewa counties escaped similar spikes in cases this weekend.

Dunn County gained three new cases since Friday, for a total of 37, according to the Dunn County Health Department. Eight of those are active cases.

In Chippewa County, two new cases were found since Friday, totaling 85 as of Monday, said Angela Weideman, Chippewa County Public Health director. Twenty of those are active cases.

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