EAU CLAIRE — It took Eau Claire County almost six months to tally its first 1,000 cases of COVID-19.

It only took three weeks for the next 1,000 county residents to test positive.

A day after the county recorded its 2,000th case of the virus, Chippewa Valley health care officials said Thursday that people are being hospitalized with the coronavirus in increasing numbers, calling on the public to stay away from large gatherings, wear masks and socially distance.

“Masking, hand hygiene and physical distancing are more important now, quite possibly, than they have been throughout our entire experience of the pandemic,” said Jason Craig, regional chair of administration at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.

Eau Claire County’s surge in cases, which began in early September and is paralleling the statewide trend, isn’t showing signs of flattening. The county is averaging 40 new cases of the virus per day, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, at a news conference on Thursday. The county reached its 2,000th case of the coronavirus on Wednesday, and notched another 16 cases of the virus on Thursday.

In addition, a seventh Eau Claire County resident has died from COVID-19 complications, the first new death in the county since mid-August.

That person was over 65 and had underlying medical conditions, Giese said Thursday at a news conference. The Health Department did not release any other information about the death.

“We’re not flattening the curve right now,” Giese said. “We’re at our steepest ascent of the curve at the moment.”

More hospitalized locally

Giese called hospitalizations a “lagging data indicator” of the virus’ spread.

“It’s something that comes when prevention and early intervention isn’t working anymore,” she said Thursday. (The Health Department said last week it was struggling with contact tracing an avalanche of new cases, and asked people who tested positive to begin calling their own list of contacts.)

For the first time, hospitals in some parts of Wisconsin are beginning to report becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, specifically hospitals in the Green Bay, Wausau and Fox Valley areas, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported.

“Over the course of the last several weeks, we’ve seen a fairly consistent increase in COVID-positive hospitalizations throughout the region we serve,” Craig said of Mayo Clinic Health System.

Mayo has also seen its demand for COVID-19 testing “significantly increase,” Craig said.

Prevea Health, HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls are also seeing “similar increases, both in the amount of testing, number of positives and number of hospitalized patients,” said Dr. Ken Johnson, HSHS emergency medicine physician.

“We need your help,” Johnson said Thursday at a news conference. “...We fully understand how fatiguing it’s become, but right now with numbers going up as quickly as they are, we’re asking people to dig deep, find it within themselves to continue to follow the public health recommendations.”

Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire is also treating patients hospitalized with the virus and seeing an increased demand in testing, said Bill Priest, MMC-Eau Claire chief administrative officer.

Fifty-nine county residents have been hospitalized with COVID-19 at some point — 14 new hospitalizations in the last 14 days, according to county data.

Nine county residents have been hospitalized with COVID-19 in the last seven days, Giese said.

But the county’s most crucial metrics for hospitals are still intact, Giese said.

The county asks hospitals if their facilities are damaged, if non-patient care areas are being used for patient care, if trained staff are unable to care for the volume of patients and if critical supplies are lacking, “resulting in the reallocation of life-sustaining resources and/or other extreme operating conditions.”

As of Thursday, all local hospitals answered “no” to those questions, according to county metrics.

Giese said Thursday that she is confident Chippewa Valley hospitals are prepared to deal with case increases, and “confident that as a community we can make sure that doesn’t have to happen … we’ve flattened the curve before as a community and we can do it again.”

Johnson also urged the public not to avoid hospitals or urgent care if they’re experiencing a medical emergency that’s not related to COVID-19.

“It’s important that if you have a non-COVID symptom that’s worrying ... we’re open, we can take care of you, don’t stay home and avoid the hospital,” he said.

In the last two weeks, 11.4% of all tests done on county residents have come back positive — down slightly from 14% last Thursday, but “certainly concerning,” Giese said.

Of the county’s 2,016 cases, 1,793 people have recovered, leaving 223 active cases as of Thursday.

Case counts, deaths rising statewide

Cases are continuing to surge throughout Wisconsin.

As of Wednesday, the state’s seven-day test-positivity rate was 9.3% — indicating the percentage of all tests that come back positive.

Thursday was the state’s record-high single-day case count — 2,887 new cases — and Wednesday set the record for single-day deaths: 27.

“We also know we’re entering respiratory virus season (which is) typically most dramatic in the wintertime,” Giese said. “People that are hospitalized with things like influenza and other respiratory diseases, typically that happens in the winter. We’re seeing this at a time in early fall when that is not a typical occurrence.”

The Health Department urged people with questions to call the county’s COVID-19 hotline, 715-831-7425.

In other COVID-19 news:

  • The Health Department is releasing another two-week public health order, which went into effect 12 a.m. this morning. Restrictions in the order will stay the same for this two-week period, Giese said: Indoor gatherings still must be less than 100 people, and outdoor gatherings must be less than 250. At those gatherings, people who don’t live in the same household must still stay six feet apart, as well as wear a cloth face covering, according to the statewide mask order. The only change in the order is a “strong recommendation” to keep public and private gatherings under 10 people, rather than under 50.

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.