Reducing alcohol abuse is among the goals of Eau Claire Healthy Communities' community health improvement plan, which was released this week.

Eau Claire Healthy Communities released its community health improvement plan this week, outlining goals of reducing chronic disease, high-risk alcohol use and substance abuse while promoting healthy relationships and improving mental health.

The identified priorities for Eau Claire County “have a significant impact on the health of community,” wrote Sara Driever, Eau Claire Healthy Communities Council co-chair.

A total of 3,400 Eau Claire County residents participated in the health survey. That includes high school students, who were asked about drug use and sexual activity. Driever said she was happy with the high level of participation across the county.

The survey identified areas of concern. For instance, between 40 and 53 percent of county residents in the survey were found to be obese.

“Obesity rates in rural ZIP codes were found to be up to 10 percent higher than rates in ZIP codes located within the city of Eau Claire,” she wrote.

Also, 28 percent of Eau Claire County residents above age 2 have not had a dental visit in the past year. Again, rural ZIP codes scored poorer in this category than city residents, she said.

Binge drinking continues to be a problem, the report shows.

“The economic cost of binge drinking in Eau Claire County is $160.4 million per year, a cost of $1,624 to each resident,” she said.

Driever said that figure is derived from hospital stays and criminal justice costs, such as drunken driving or disorderly conduct, because of alcohol use.

The report also found mental health continues to be a problem in the community.

“Over the past 10 years, the average number of mentally unhealthy days have increased 1.5 days for Eau Claire County residents,” she said.

Eau Claire also has a higher hospitalization rate for people who self-injure or have self-inflicted wounds compared with the rest of Wisconsin. The county’s suicide rate is also above the state and U.S. average.

One positive note is that high school students report drinking less alcohol and at a rate lower than the state average.

With the information now gathered, Driever said, the focus turns to how to take this information and make improvements.

“We’re trying to create long-term solutions,” she said. “We’re trying to get our professionals less ‘siloed’ and get them to work together.”

One concern is the sheer shortage of mental health workers in the county; there are 780 residents per worker, she said. There also are 1,110 residents per dentist in the county, she added.

“And our population is aging, so we’ll need physicians,” she said.

Another problem is that many of these workers aren’t bilingual, and Eau Claire has a growing number of people who speak Spanish or Hmong.

“We have to think about those communities so they aren’t marginalized,” she said.

Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City/County public health director, said multiple agencies partnered in compiling the report and planning the next phase of implementing improvements.

“The point is, these (areas) are all connected,” Giese said. “There is an action team looking at how we address these issues. A lot of work is already happening. The goal is three years from now, we’ve made a dent and made our numbers better.”

Giese is optimistic about the potential of turning around some of these areas of concern.

“We do have a community that wants to work together,” she said. “That’s one of our strengths.”

A public discussion on the assessment will occur Thursday, April 25, at Chippewa Valley Technical College.

Contact: chris.vetter@ecpc.com