EAU CLAIRE — Data this week suggests the spread of the novel coronavirus in Eau Claire County is continuing to dramatically worsen, as the county added 240 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, blowing past its previous record of 178 new cases in a single day.
The Eau Claire City-County Health Department, blocked from issuing an enforceable public health order, kept pleading with people to socially distance, wear masks and avoid all but the smallest groups of people, pointing to rising deaths and strained hospitals.
“We had really had today, for the first time, a record number of cases beyond what I think any of us could have imagined,” said Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director, at a Thursday news briefing.
Twelve county residents have died of the virus in the last week.
The Health Department on Thursday did not give more information on the most recent seven deaths, when asked about the patients’ age range or medical conditions.
“Most of these people have been above the age of 65, and many have underlying conditions. But again, the cause of death was COVID-19,” Giese said.
“Our thoughts go out ... to those people who have lost loved ones in this way.”
The significant increase in COVID-19 deaths since Oct. 1 is partially due to an extremely high volume of new cases, Giese said Thursday — but it’s also because more cases are being concentrated in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and similar places.
“That means that despite all the amazingly hard work those facilities have been doing to slow spread just like the rest of the community, we’re seeing cases in those settings as well,” Giese said.
Almost every metric by which the county measures the coronavirus’ spread is indicating the virus is still raging in the Chippewa Valley, according to a Thursday report from the Health Department. Nearly one in five COVID-19 tests came back positive last week, a bump up from last week’s 15% test-positivity rate. The Health Department is investigating instances of two more connected cases at 29 different facilities in the last two weeks. Just over a third of county residents diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last two weeks aren’t sure where they contracted the infection (although that number is down from 41% last week).
“Since Sept. 7, we’ve been at or above the range of daily cases — 25 or more a day — where it’s recommended by many national experts (that we) be all staying home, rather than doing our normal activities,” Giese said.
Almost 800 people are actively isolating in Eau Claire County right now after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Another 3,500 have recovered, according to county data.
Just over 4,500 county residents have tested positive for the virus since March.
Starting last week, because of the surge in cases, the Health Department is “no longer able” to call close contacts of people that have contracted COVID-19, Giese said. Instead, she urged people who test positive to reach out to their close contacts and tell them to visit the Health Department’s website for instructions, www.covid19eauclaire.org.
Local hospitals still strained
Another 27 county residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 between Oct. 24 and Oct. 31.
More patients hospitalized with the virus means potential trouble for local hospitals. Eau Claire County health officials last week said that hospitals are on track to be overwhelmed if the county keeps recording over 100 new cases a day. New cases need to be under 30 a day for hospitals to be in a better spot, Giese said last week.
As of Thursday, 148 county residents have been hospitalized with the virus — or just over 3% of all cases in the county so far.
But Eau Claire area hospitals are already showing signs of trouble.
Mayo Clinic Health System hospitals in northwestern Wisconsin, including Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire, announced last week they would temporarily defer elective procedures so staffers could focus on coronavirus patients.
As of Oct. 30, 52 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 at the Eau Claire Mayo Clinic hospital alone.
“We now are at risk of overwhelming our health care system,” Dr. Richard Helmers, regional vice president for MCHS, said last week in a news release.
In a group of 15 northwestern Wisconsin counties, including Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn, 158 people are hospitalized with the virus as of Thursday — 46 more people than last week, according to the state Department of Health Services.
Eighteen of those people are in intensive care units, up from 12 last week. Twenty-five are on ventilators.
Northwestern Wisconsin’s inpatient hospital beds were 77% occupied in the last 14 days, and its ICU beds were 89% occupied, according to the state DHS.
But people still should go to a hospital if they have an urgent health issue or emergency, Giese said.
The Health Department has one overwhelming message for the community, Giese said Thursday: Wear a mask, social distance, stay away from gatherings and understand that huge case increases aren’t inevitable.
“It’s serious,” Giese said of the state of the virus in the Chippewa Valley. “It’s also something we can do a whole lot about. We are not powerless. We can wear a mask. We can stay 6 feet apart.”