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All eyes on hundreds of new EC County coronavirus tests

The first large-scale, short-term testing effort for the coronavirus in Eau Claire County wrapped up Monday night, and now health officials must wait between 24 and 48 hours for a Madison laboratory to test the hundreds of swabs and send results.

On Sunday, the first day of a Wisconsin National Guard testing blitz in Eau Claire, 216 people were tested for the virus at the drive-thru site in Eau Claire. On Monday, officials were hoping for “well over 200 tests” as well, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

While they wait for test results to return, authorities are bracing for a possible spike in Eau Claire County cases — which have increased by seven over the weekend, to 60 as of Monday.

But they’re also hoping the results of the two-day testing blitz will form a one-time snapshot of how far the virus has reached and give them an idea of how the disease will spread when the community reopens.

The roughly 400 to 500 test results will help Chippewa Valley health departments pin down how many contact tracers they’ll need and how many tests they must plan to have available as businesses reopen, Giese said.

“Our long-term strategy is not to keep the community shut down forever. It’s to give us a pause right now, build our capacity to do this containment,” Giese said at a Monday news conference. “This (testing) gives us an idea of how that might work moving forward and what we might see as we start testing more broadly.”

County residents who got tested at the National Guard site in Eau Claire Sunday or Monday can expect to get a result within 48 hours, Giese said.

People who tested positive will get a phone call from the Eau Claire Health Department. Then contact tracing will begin: Tracers will attempt to reach everyone that person has been in contact with, and tell them to stay home for two weeks to watch for symptoms of the virus.

Even those who tested negative will get a phone call from the National Guard’s office, Giese said.

The countywide case count will likely start reflecting the National Guard test results on Wednesday, she said.

The Eau Claire Health Department has 29 people trained to do COVID-19 contact tracing, “a significant increase for us” over normal, Giese said. If coronavirus cases spike significantly in the wake of National Guard testing, the county will probably call on the state’s pool of newly hired contact tracers for assistance.

“This is a disease that’s unprecedented in the number of people who are needed to do this kind of public health work,” Giese said Monday.

The county may need to hire and train more tracers when businesses reopen. Some national studies estimate between 30 and 40 full-time contact tracers are needed per 100,000 people, Giese said. Eau Claire County’s population is almost 105,000, according to a 2019 U.S. Census estimate.

As of Monday, 60 county residents have been confirmed to have COVID-19. Of those, 26 people have been released from isolation. In total, 2,849 people have been tested, and 71 tests are still pending.

The Health Department has declined to comment on patients’ specific ages, genders or more information, citing medical privacy rules.

“Our hospitalization numbers remain very small, so for confidentiality reasons we don’t report on this, but about 18% overall of state cases are hospitalized at any point for COVID-19,” Giese said.

More testing in Chippewa Valley

Chippewa County has identified 31 cases of the virus, with 20 of those cases released from isolation, said Chippewa County Public Health Director Angela Weideman on Monday.

The free testing opportunities aren’t over. Wisconsin residents with COVID-19 symptoms will be able to get tested for free at two National Guard testing sites, Weideman said. One testing site will be held Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Thorp High School, 605 S. Clark St., Thorp. The other is slated for Thursday at the Rusk County Fairgrounds, Rusk County Fairgrounds Road, Ladysmith, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

For the Rusk County site, people can call 715-532-2299 to schedule an appointment or simply show up at the testing site that day, Weideman said.

Possible symptoms of the virus are fever (a measured temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit), cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle aches, headaches, sore throats or a new loss of taste or smell, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Statewide, 199 new cases have been found since Sunday, according to the state Department of Health Services. In total, 10,418 Wisconsin residents have been sickened by the virus, and 409 have died, nine new deaths since Sunday.

Flyovers to honor health care workers

In a tribute to health care workers and first responders during the pandemic, the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing will fly four F-16 Fighting Falcons over several Wisconsin hospitals on Tuesday, including over HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire.

The Sacred Heart flyover will happen between 6:49 p.m. and 6:59 p.m. Tuesday, but that could change due to weather conditions, according to a news release from the hospital.

The 115th Fighter Wing urged people not to come to hospitals or gather in large groups to see the flyover, which is part of a regular training mission.

“Thank you to all of the medical personnel, truck drivers, grocery store workers, first responders and the countless citizens who have come together to support the COVID-19 response,” said Col. Erik Peterson, 115th FW commander, in the news release. “We wish we could fly over every community impacted by this pandemic — but just know that the Wisconsin Air National Guard is proud to serve with all of you — our neighbors, friends and communities.”

The Eau Claire Health Department’s COVID-19 hotline is 715-831-7425.


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Chippewa Valley hospitals ramping up services

With fears of a major surge in COVID-19 cases subsiding, Chippewa Valley hospitals and clinics are ramping services back up after several weeks of limiting in-person care to only the most seriously ill patients.

Health care facilities may not look the same as they did before this spring’s coronavirus pandemic — with widespread policies in place limiting visitors and requiring masks, health screenings and social distancing — but many of the usual procedures are now available to patients.

Marshfield Clinic Health System announced Monday that it began performing non-urgent surgeries last week at its hospitals in Eau Claire and Marshfield and that it anticipates over the next several weeks increasing the number of procedures available at its other hospitals, including those in Rice Lake, Ladysmith and Neillsville.

“We are slowly reimplementing our surgical services, keeping in mind the risk of individuals and the safety of our patients and our staff and providers as well,” said Tammy Simon, vice president of quality, innovation and patient safety at Marshfield Clinic Health System.

While all medical services are available, Simon said the system initially is reaching out to patients in need of procedures that have a relatively minimal impact on the supply of personal protective equipment and testing capacity. Examples include procedures for cataracts, pain, joints and others not requiring general anesthesia.

Simon explained that at the time Marshfield Clinic Health System dialed down services six weeks ago it didn’t have enough PPE and staff were concerned about their supply of anesthesia medications, the same ones that would have been needed for COVID-19 patients on ventilators.

“If we do get a surge, we would be very quick to dial back down to make sure that we have those supplies available,” she said.

In addition to requiring masks, doing check-in by phone, spacing chairs in waiting rooms 6 feet apart and taking other safety measures, the system is now creating separate areas in its buildings for patients with and without respiratory issues as an added precaution in case respiratory patients turn out to have COVID-19.

“There will be a different way we provide care,” Simon said. “We’re calling it our new normal.”

Mayo Clinic Health System resumed offering all services on May 1, based primarily on updated models predicting a lessened COVID-19 peak and an extended plateau of cases instead of a sharp surge that could have made hospital and intensive care bed capacity an issue, said Jason Craig, regional chair of administration for Mayo Clinic Health System in Northwest Wisconsin.

A number of safety measures also have been implemented to support the reopening, including, with limited exceptions, prohibiting visitors from inpatient, surgical and procedural areas and limiting to one the number of visitors for outpatient clinic visits.

“We’ve put in place screening for everybody who comes into the facility, universal masking and enhanced cleaning of patient care, staff and waiting areas,” Craig said.

While Mayo Clinic Health System never stopped providing emergency, urgent and semi-urgent care, the resumption of other services has been well-received by patients, many of whom had put off care that could improve the quality of their lives, he said.

“There’s a lot to be said for being able to see patients and deliver care and at least get some piece of what was normal back into our lives,” Craig said.

HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls on May 4 resumed some non-urgent surgeries, such as urology, ear, nose and throat procedures, that had been suspended since mid-March.

“Because of the low incidence of COVID-19 in our area, we feel like we can slowly start to ramp up doing those procedures again,” said John Wagner, president and CEO of St. Joseph’s. “We’re trying to not go all in to make sure that we’ve got adequate resources available ... if we do see a jump in COVID cases in our community.”

The HSHS hospitals also have taken several safety precautions to keep patients and staff safe. Those include requiring masks, displaying signs encouraging social distancing, eliminating self-service food and beverage stations, screening people at the door and testing patients for COVID-19 three days before a procedure and then asking them to self-isolate if they test negative until check-in. Procedures for patients with positive tests are postponed further. No visitors are allowed for adults, and only one visitor is allowed for patients under 18.

“We put a lot of safeguards in place to make sure they’re comfortable and safe when they come here,” Wagner said. “At the moment and for the forseeable future, we’re going to operate with an abundance of caution.”

Surgeries at OakLeaf Surgical Hospital in Altoona continue to be limited to urgent, semi-urgent and emergent cases at the surgeon’s discretion, according to the hospital’s website.

Officials indicated that furloughs, pay cuts and other cost-cutting measures regional health care providers imposed in response to the coronavirus-related financial disruption caused by the temporary cutbacks in service remain in place.


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More shops can open after latest order

The sign on the front door of Lasker Jewelers was flipped for the first time in nearly two months on Monday afternoon to let customers know they could shop inside the store.

Co-owner Nicole Lasker was ecstatic to hear her business could reopen before the state’s safer-at-home order is set to expire later this month, although there will be a limit on how many customers can be inside at a time.

“I honestly wasn’t expecting this until May 26,” Lasker said.

Gov. Tony Evers announced at midday Monday that “nonessential” retail businesses that have been closed since mid-March could reopen immediately with some restrictions. The order only allows stand-alone and strip-mall stores to reopen, but not large shopping centers. Among those was a limit of five customers at any time and following social distancing guidelines intended to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Though the good news came about two weeks ahead of schedule, Lasker was eager to open with measures in place to protect her employees and customers from contracting the disease.

Customers who now shop at the jewelry store at 3705 Oakwood Mall Drive will be greeted with a free face mask to wear and a squirt of hand sanitizer. Each piece of jewelry handled by a customer also will be cleaned with a rubbing alcohol solution before it is put back in a display case.

Lasker had ordered decals to place on the floor to show customers where to stand to keep at least six feet of distance between each other and employees, but they haven’t arrived yet.

Monday’s announcement came as a welcome surprise to Erin Klaus, co-owner of downtown Eau Claire art and gift shop Tangled Up In Hue, 505 S. Barstow St.

“Obviously I’m very excited that we’ll have the opportunity at a limited capacity to let people in here,” she said.

The store has a plexiglass partition to separate the cashier from customers and there’s a hand sanitizing station. All employees will be required to wear masks and customers will be encouraged to follow suit.

Though Klaus was excited to be able to reopen, she said it would still take some organization before making full use of Monday’s order. The store is planning to have limited shopping hours this week and announce its full return via its social media accounts. Part of why Klaus isn’t ready to swing the doors wide open is because of adaptations the business made in recent weeks to continue its operations in some fashion.

“We’d kind of transitioned our store into a shipping warehouse,” Klaus said.

In recent weeks the shop has been growing its e-commerce, which has meant preparing packages on the sales floor and creating a makeshift photo studio to take pictures of merchandise that is then sold online. That demand for getting the shop’s wares was encouraging to Klaus, but also required new costs for shipping and more time responding to communications.

“It is heartwarming, but it was also trying to manage the same business but with far less cash flow coming in,” she said.

Muldoon’s Men’s Wear, 1506 S. Hastings Way, also has been doing more online business and finding different ways to help local customers in recent weeks.

Last week a customer tried on a dress shirt he ordered in the parking lot, buttoning it up over his undershirt as the store’s staff waited from a distance to see if it met his approval to complete the purchase.

Store owner John Muldoon said that since the shutdown took effect in March, online business has grown 40%. Of particular note was an 80% spike in hat sales, which he attributes to people spending more time outdoors while many businesses have been closed due to coronavirus restrictions.

He welcomed the resumption of in-person business and will institute measures to keep customers and employees safe from the virus.

All Muldoon’s employees will wear masks while helping customers, the business owner said, and customers will be asked to wear their own.

Should customers arrive and the store is already at the five-person capacity, Muldoon said the new arrivals would be asked to wait in their cars outside the shop until someone else leaves.

“We are asking for appointments, especially when it comes to wedding consulting,” Muldoon said.

Having an entire bridal party or group of groomsmen show up at one time would likely hit the maximum capacity imposed by the state order.

The formal wear store also is changing its normal opening time of 8:30 a.m. on Mondays through Saturdays to 10 a.m. as it adjusts to the flow of business under the new circumstances.

Sandy O’Connell, owner of Avalon Floral, 504 Water St., welcomed having customers in her store after mostly doing delivery and curbside pickup for the past two months.

“If they are going to allow five, I’ll take five,” she said.

Like other local businesses, O’Connell said Avalon will ask people to wear face masks and use hand sanitizer.

Opening her doors to small numbers will help boost business, O’Connell said, but restrictions on large gatherings will also hamper what would normally be a busy season for florists.

The COVID-19 related ban on large gatherings that began in March canceled senior proms, and people have been unable to hold traditional funerals. Delivering flowers to people in hospitals also has been on hold. And now wedding season is coming on, but it’s uncertain when coronavirus restrictions will be lifted to let those ceremonies happen.

Travel restrictions have also cut down the supply of certain flowers that come into the U.S. from overseas, including tulips, hyacinths and snapdragons, O’Connell said.

Monday’s state order, which also included drive-in movie theaters, is part of Evers’ plan to “turn the dial” on the economy by gradually opening up more businesses in Wisconsin. Shopping malls, dine-in restaurants and services including hair stylists, barbers and nail salons remain closed.