Trempealeau County is experiencing one of the state’s highest rates of COVID-19 cases, and by far the highest rate in western Wisconsin, according to state data.
The county, with a population of just under 30,000, has a rate of 1,022.5 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people.
Its rate is far higher than Eau Claire and La Crosse counties — its larger neighbors that have both seen significant spikes in cases in June and July.
Eau Claire County’s rate of virus cases is 460 per 100,000 people, and La Crosse County’s is 669, according to state data.
Only six other Wisconsin counties have per capita COVID-19 rates higher than Trempealeau County — Iron, Brown, Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties.
Two Trempealeau County residents have died of the virus, and 305 had contracted it as of Friday.
In comparison, Eau Claire County — with a population more than three times as large as Trempealeau County — had three deaths and 474 total cases as of Friday.
Big gatherings and few wearing masks are likely partially to blame for Trempealeau County’s prevalence of coronavirus cases, said Kaila Baer, the county health department’s COVID-19 public information officer.
“We’re seeing a lot of people going against our recommendations with their gatherings,” Baer said.
For the past several weeks, Baer has warned that the county is on the edge of moving to a severe-risk designation — up from the high-risk label that most Wisconsin counties have per the state Department of Health Services.
Baer cited large sporting events, graduation parties, “socially distanced” weddings in the county, combined with a lack of mask-wearing: “All these types of things, just by nature of them, you tend to not physically distance the entire time.”
Health officials believe that half of the county’s cases don’t know where they got the virus, a statistic that concerns Baer.
“It’s definitely higher than we’d like to be,” she said. “It would be much better if people were getting it directly from someone else they know they were in contact with. Those people are quarantined, and if they test positive, they have fewer contacts.”
Almost half of the county’s cases, 46%, are found in Arcadia, the county’s largest city.
That wasn’t a surprise to county health officials. Some of the area’s largest employers are centered in Arcadia, Baer said, which draws many employees who commute from surrounding counties.
While the county has been “working really hard to provide our materials in Spanish and to reach out” to Arcadia’s Hispanic and Latino residents — the Health Department posts daily updates on its Facebook page in both Spanish and English — “sometimes the language barrier makes it a little more difficult,” Baer said. The city has a large Hispanic and Latino population; 72% of children enrolled in the Arcadia School District in September 2019 were Hispanic, according to Wisconsin DPI data.
On July 16, the county saw its first death; the resident was hospitalized at the time, but the health department declined to release the person’s age or medical history, citing medical privacy reasons.
A low death rate brings some good news for the county. As of July 23, six residents had been hospitalized with the virus, Baer said, just 2% of the county’s total cases — far lower than the state’s 9% hospitalization average.
Young people are likely driving the virus’ spread, she noted.
Just over 52% of the county’s cases are in young adults between 20 and 39 years old, according to county data. It mirrors a regional and statewide trend.
“That’s telling me that it’s spreading among people who are engaging in riskier activities,” Baer said.
The county’s health department is recommending people don’t gather in groups over 15 when they’re indoors, and over 50 when they’re outdoors.
Baer also urged people to wear masks and not to gather in large groups.
The county is attempting to turn around the case trend with a new initiative aimed at local businesses’ safety practices.
“We do have a (state) toolkit already … but it hasn’t been enough. I really do think we can level off our case rate by getting businesses on board and helping our residents see how important this is,” Baer said.