EAU CLAIRE — Eau Claire County reported its 1,000th case of coronavirus on Tuesday.
The milestone came on the heels of the Labor Day holiday weekend, when 95 cases were added to the tally in three days.
“This is a little more than we expected and a little sooner than we expected,” Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters said Tuesday.
An increase had been anticipated since area schools and UW-Eau Claire began classes last week, Peters said, but not quite to this degree. This was the largest increase in positive cases the county has seen in a three-day period since the pandemic began in mid-March.
The recent rise in cases has strained the ability of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department to quickly reach people who came in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Contact tracing within 48 hours now is one of the county’s measures that has fallen to red, indicating it is an area of concern.
Capacity of the health care system to test its workers and handle patients with severe cases of coronavirus remain in the green. However, Peters cautioned that if overall case numbers spin out of control, there is the potential for overwhelming area health care resources.
“The spread of COVID-19 is exponential — it has the ability to double rather quickly,” Peters said.
City Council members said they’d been alerted to large gatherings of adults over the weekend at local taverns by constituents worried that will hasten the spread of the virus.
“The number of people inside establishments without masks on worries me,” Councilman Andrew Werthmann said.
During the meeting, he posted a photo to Twitter showing dozens of people clustered outside of an entrance to a Water Street bar. Werthmann attributed a spike in positive cases last week to the start of university classes and students in large gatherings like the one seen in the photograph.
Werthmann asked the county’s top public health official if the local strategy for controlling the spread of coronavirus should change in some way.
Lieske Giese, the county’s health director, said her department has been following up on complaints tied to specific businesses and works with the owners on practices to reduce the chance that COVID-19 could spread from their establishments.
She noted that a reason why crowds have appeared on sidewalks is because taverns have been following local health orders that limit capacities and require patrons to spread out inside buildings. Giese said follow-up talks with those businesses have included methods for how people should be spaced out on sidewalks while they are waiting to get inside.
Councilman Jeremy Gragert also said he’s received complaints of crowds at taverns and wondered if the city could impose restrictions on their operating hours.
Giese replied that although other communities are trying that, there are legal questions about restricting business hours and it’s not a strategy employed by the current local health order.
She also reminded the council that it’s not just the businesses that get outed on social media for drawing crowds, but also other public and private gatherings that continue to happen and have been linked to COVID-19 spreading.
“There is definite concern about spread whenever people are closer to 6 feet,” Giese said.
Council President Terry Weld said it is important to continue expressing the need for people to take personal responsibility to slow the spread of coronavirus by wearing face masks, practicing social distancing and not gathering in large groups.
“Really now it’s up to us as a community to hold ourselves and others accountable,” he said.
While 1,000 people in Eau Claire County have tested positive for COVID-19, there have been a total of 19,162 negative tests to date, according to the latest statistics.
There have been six county residents who died from COVID-19 to date.
Forty-one people have required hospitalization in the county due to coronavirus. Of those diagnosed with the illness, 859 have recovered.