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Tracing COVID-19 in Abbotsford, a rural city split between two counties

Published: Jul. 3, 2020 at 6:40 PM CDT
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ABBOTSFORD, Wis. (WSAW) - A small city of just over 2,000 straddling two counties where COVID-19 activity is listed as high according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Abbotsford like many is grappling with COVID-19: a diverse community split between two public health jurisdictions.

Much of the city’s population falls into the jurisdiction of the Clark County Health Department, a smaller department than Marathon County’s and strapped for resources as they grapple with cases rising in the county. Now with seven deaths out of 81 cases, the county is listed as having one of the highest fatality rates in the state; community members say two of those deaths have occurred in the Abbotsford area, where roughly 50 COVID-19 cases are listed in the Abbotsford census tracts.

The city is one of the more diverse in central Wisconsin, where at least a quarter of the population is Hispanic—far more than the overall percentage of the population in Marathon County or Clark County, where much of the city falls. Many hail from Mexico and Puerto Rico, according to Alejandro Vazquez, the editor of a regional Spanish-language newspaper and radio show. Trained in journalism in Mexico City before coming to the United States, he says the community is afraid—after two recent COVID-19 deaths of those who lived or worked in the Abbotsford area.

“One guy is dead—now it’s two people,” he said, referring to the seventh COVID-19 death in Clark County announced yesterday. “Every day more people are scared and don’t know what they can do…if they don’t work in some places, they can get warnings. They don’t have money to pay for rent, food, gas.”

While the Clark and Marathon County health departments have been working together closely since an outbreak at Abbyland Foods at the end of May, Marathon County’s Judy Burrows says their respective health departments observe county boundaries and do not handle a case investigation that originates in a different county.

“The same is true for contacts to the case,” Burrows said in an email to NewsChannel 7, describing how the public health jurisdictions functioned. “Contacts are followed by the health department in their county of residence. So, if [a] Dane County case has a contact in Marathon County, Dane County notifies us and we follow that contact.”

“Right now we have two full time public health nurses that are doing contact tracing, and then two other public health nurses that are helping as time allows,” Clark County’s Emergency Management John Ross noted in late June. He said that while they have not yet asked the state for help in contact tracing—the act of tracking the close contacts of positive COVID-19 cases to stop the spread—they need to hire more staff to cope with the workload.

“It’s a small department; that’s the nature of what it is,” Ross noted.

At the end of May and beginning of June, multiple positive COVID-19 cases emerged at Abbyland Foods, a big employer for both the area—and the Hispanic community. Since then, advocates say the community is struggling to balance the needs of ongoing job security with safety considerations. Hispanic community advocate Tony Gonzalez, who assists Marathon County in interpretation for contact tracing but does not speak for the department, is concerned.

“A lot of people will not keep a quarantine or isolation because of course they say, ‘If I don’t go to work, I’m not gonna get any food, or I can’t provide for my family,” Gonzalez noted.

Gonzalez believes part of the immediate solution for those torn between choosing their job and their health is getting businesses to step up employee protections during this time, and for government entities like Occupational Safety and Health Administration to increase their oversight of the businesses where employees may be at risk.

“It’s crucial that businesses do that, because people have sacrificed for those businesses,” he said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Dealing with the pandemic—or not dealing—is a question that plagues Mayor Lori Voss in respect to the entire community, where internet access isn’t a guarantee and some don’t even want to stay updated, she says.

“How do you reach everyone?” she asked, rhetorically. “It’s just a tough place to be.”

Social distancing and safe practices are important, Voss believes; so is keeping a small community together as they face the loss of jobs or livelihoods. “I don’t want anyone to lose their life. I don’t want anybody to be sick. It’s really hard. I don’t want anyone to lose their job, I want people to remain employed.”

City administrator Dan Grady says he’s encouraged lately by seeing more masks, but the information problem remains.

We try in multiple different ways, different mediums,” he said. “But still, there are people who just—we can’t reach.”

Copyright 2020 WSAW. All rights reserved.

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