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The Wisconsin National Guard is offering free, drive-thru COVID-19 testing to people with symptoms of the virus today and on two other dates at the Dunn County Fairgrounds in Menomonie.

DUNN COUNTY — As the novel coronavirus set grim records in Wisconsin in October, Dunn County community leaders on Monday issued a plea: Take warnings about gatherings, masks and social distancing seriously.

“This kind of case increase is not sustainable from a number of perspectives. Our health departments are overwhelmed, our health care providers are reaching a critical state and people are dying,” stated a letter signed by 15 community leaders, including officials at the head of Dunn County, the city of Menomonie, UW-Stout, Chippewa Valley Technical College and Dunn County area hospitals, health organizations, school districts, tourist organizations and law enforcement agencies.

Dunn County’s case counts are exploding, community officials said in the letter. The county’s surge in cases has mimicked that of Eau Claire and Chippewa counties this fall: a smaller uptick in mid-September, a short lull, then dramatic escalation around the end of October, county data shows.

Several Chippewa Valley school districts have temporarily moved classes online as cases surge, and Menomonie High School will do the same: It’s moving to all-remote learning on Wednesday, Menomonie schools Superintendent Joe Zydowsky announced: The school “is at a point with staff absences that cannot continue.” All-online schooling will last until at least Nov. 30, but may well continue after that date, Zydowsky added. (Other schools in the district, as of Monday, are planning to continue with in-person classes.)

“With deer hunting and the Thanksgiving holiday coming up, it will be very important that people avoid gatherings, wash up, mask up, and back up if we want our schools to stay open,” Zydowsky wrote.

Dunn County has a lower case rate than its neighbors do; last week Eau Claire County had 1,490 cases per 100,000 people, Chippewa County had 1,627 and Dunn County had 1,063, according to the state Department of Health Services.

But every county in Wisconsin is considered to have a high rate of virus spread as of Monday, and public health officials have been sounding the alarm for weeks. Dunn County stands at 1,628 cases of the virus as of Monday.

“Right now we have a concerning number of active cases,” said KT Gallagher, Dunn County Health Department director, in a Friday briefing on the virus.

“To put that into perspective … we’ve had a fifth, or one out of every five cases Dunn County has ever seen, in the last seven days. We have hit exponential growth, and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.”

Eight Dunn County residents were hospitalized with the virus as of Friday, Gallagher said, a “steady increase in hospitalizations.”

One county resident has died of the virus. As of Monday, Dunn County had a lower death rate, 0.06%, than Eau Claire County, 0.6%, or Chippewa County, 1.1%. But that could be due to Dunn County’s current high concentration of cases in younger people: 35% of its cases are in 20- to 29-year-olds, and the next biggest demographic for the virus is 10- to 19-year-olds at 18%, according to county data.

But neighboring counties have seen deaths from COVID-19 ramp up nearly immediately in a relatively short amount of time. Two weeks ago, 12 residents of Eau Claire County had died of the respiratory virus. Another 19 residents have died of the virus since then, according to county data. Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese has pointed to hospitalizations being a “lagging indicator” of the virus’ spread, and that the weight of the county’s cases is beginning to shift from young adults to the older demographic.

“The only way we can get things to right themselves is everyone taking a personal responsibility to keep our community safe,” Gallagher said Friday. “That means stay home. Don’t have people over, not even small gatherings. Stick to your family, your household, not your extended family.”

In their Monday letter, the county’s Recovery Team echoed Gallagher’s plea: Stay 6 feet apart if you must attend gatherings or be around others not in your household; wash your hands and use hand sanitizer, and wear a mask in public and when you can’t physically distance.

“The Recovery Team determined at its meeting Friday that immediate urgent action is needed on the part of citizens of Menomonie, Dunn County and western Wisconsin to help ensure an already dire situation doesn’t get worse,” said Doug Mell, special assistant to UW-Stout’s chancellor and spokesperson for the Dunn County Community Recovery Team.

Though it’s a hard pill to swallow, gatherings — even those with extended family — may be driving this surge in cases, Gallagher said.

“We’ve seen a lot of cases this last week associated with small gatherings of folks outside their home,” she said at a Friday briefing. “We had folks post Halloween parties while they were symptomatic. We had weddings and benefits in person where lots of people were exposed, and we have additional illnesses. Now is not the time for gatherings. Now is the time to stay home.”

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.