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Northwoods health experts prepare for potential surge in COVID-19 cases as more people travel north

(WSAW)
Published: May. 27, 2020 at 6:30 PM CDT
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Wednesday, Northwoods counties saw new positive cases of COVID-19. Businesses in Minocqua along with its chamber of commerce told NewsChannel 7 the amount of business over the Memorial Day weekend was comparable to previous years.

Several people living up north, including area leaders, have told NewsChannel 7 that not everyone is following the guidelines recommended by the CDC and health departments. While the hope is that there will not be a surge in new positive cases, hospitals and Linda Conlon, the Oneida County Health Department director say they are preparing just in case.

In the last week, including the last few days, COVID-19 cases have increased in some of the more popular tourism counties in the Northwoods. Forest County has seen a slow increase over time, with its first case not appearing until May 5. Since then, it has increased its total to 25, 12 of which were reported Wednesday alone. Vilas County has seen slower growth with only six positive cases overall, however, two of those cases came within the last week. Oneida County went several weeks without any new cases, but then saw two new cases back to back Tuesday and Wednesday.

"What that's saying to us is that, indeed, COVID-19 is still spreading in our area whether it's from our people that live in this area or whether it's from people who travel to the area," Conlon said.

She said she is concerned that new cases continue to come in for Oneida County, but also to see new cases from surrounding counties. The hospitals in the county treat patients from the northern region, so increased cases that result in hospitalization could impact how many can be treated locally.

Ascension dominates the health care field in the Northwoods. It said in a statement:

We understand there may be concerns related to future demand for acute care, and our region’s ability to meet these needs. Every one of our hospitals has a surge plan specific to that facility, and we continue to review and revise those plans based on what is happening within our community, as well as what we’re seeing happening in communities that have already seen large COVID-19 outbreaks. While we have hospital bed capacity today, we are looking ahead and working to ensure we are ready to manage a potential surge in patient needs. Keep in mind that only a portion of those hospitalized will require intensive care. The best strategy of all is prevention. We cannot stress enough the importance of following all social distancing practices. We will get through this by working together to slow the transmission of COVID-19 and care for all those in need.

Conlon said she is aware of how people are taking the health guidelines, especially over the last weekend, and said they are increasing their staff at the department as well in case of a surge.

"We're seeing about 50% of the patrons wearing masks when they're out in the public and in the stores. We hope to increase that," she said.

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"Even if you don't feel like you're at risk, and you don't feel if you get COVID-19 that it's going to impact you very much, we really want people to understand that it could impact anybody next to them much more severely than it could impact you," she urged. "One of the things that we like to pride ourselves on in the Northwoods is our kindness and our consideration for others and our neighborliness and part of that is wearing masks when you're out in public."

She said if you are out on a boat with your household, out UTVing, or hiking and not near other people, you do not need to wear a mask. If you are inside a business, on the street with other people around you, or hanging out with people outside of your household, you should wear a mask. Of course, masks cannot be worn while eating, so she said if you are dining at a restaurant, you need to social distance from people outside of your household. She also added that even if all people around you are wearing masks, social distancing is still necessary because while it stops much of the airborne saliva from hanging in the air, it does not prevent all of it.

In a press release notifying the public of the county's ninth positive case, Conlon said they will begin to share more information about the public places people who have tested positive have been while they have been infectious because of the increased movement of people at this time.

In regards to how cases, both positive and negative, will be counted for people who do not permanently live in the county, she said they are asking those people who are tested to list their address as their northern address, not wherever they are actually from.

"So that we get that count because they're actually living here during the time that they're infectious," she explained. "And it's important for us to know, number one, that they're here and we're doing their contact investigation, but also for us to have those counts so that people understand what is the risk and where are our numbers at."

She said if people are only in the county for a few days, the results of the test likely will not count as a case for the county. She said most of the time, county public health departments will let another county know if someone who tests positive had traveled to their county, but she stated every department, especially those outside the state, work differently.

NewsChannel 7 asked if the public would be notified if the department becomes aware of an outside visitor who tested positive traveled to the county. Conlon said it would depend on the case. If the person did not have significant exposure in the county, for example, stayed in their cabin and ordered delivery during their stay, they likely would not alert the public as a whole so as not to cause unnecessary concern. However, if that person was out in the community more and was not taking recommended safety protections, they may issue a press release.

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