St. Croix County keeps public health authority law on agenda as COVID numbers accelerate

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shows the appearance of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Submitted / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Health and Human Services Board will look at revised language for the ordinance, which would give state-granted enforcement power to the county health officer during a pandemic, at its next meeting. The most recently proposed draft was postponed by the public health communications subcommittee after a town hall meeting where some residents expressed concerns about vagueness of the order and whether it was constitutional.

Supervisor Cathy Leaf, who serves on the subcommittee, asked for the discussion of an ordinance to again be on the HHS Board’s November meeting agenda.

“We have to act. We’re in the crisis red zone,” she said.

St. Croix County is seeing a seven-day average of 30.1 new cases per day, the board heard in an update from Epidemiologist Elizabeth Klasen at its Oct. 21 meeting.

“That’s quite a lot for our population,” she said.

That average puts the county in the red, the highest risk level, for the Harvard Global Health risk level map.

“What we can see is there is an incredible jump in September,” Klasen said.

READ MORE: Proposed ordinance would give state-granted enforcement to St. Croix County health officer

The county daily numbers saw a brief dip the weekend of Oct. 16, but Klasen explained that was due to a backlog in the state reporting system, meaning cases that would have been reported over the weekend didn’t come in until Monday.

As of Oct. 23, the county had 676 active cases out of a total 1,663 confirmed cases. There have been 11 deaths, and 15 people are currently hospitalized.

The higher case numbers is not due to the amount of testing being done, Klasen said. Within the total number of people being tested, 17% are testing positive.

“If we’re testing more the number positive should be less, that number should be on a decline, but unfortunately what you saw in that graph is the proportion testing positive continues to rise,” she said.

HHS Board member Dr. Paul McGinnis said the data makes him think the county is not testing enough. Klasen agreed.

“We’re finding so much disease that obviously, we’re missing some,” she said.

If the county were testing as much as it should, then it would have a huge volume of negative results, she said, and would be able to identify where the virus is in the community.

The highest percentage of cases are in Hudson, which accounts for 44% of the county’s cases. New Richmond has 18%, Somerset has 8% and River Falls has 7%.

The majority of St. Croix County’s COVID-19 cases are in the 20-60 age range. McGinnis said currently the main spread seems to be present in the 40-60 age range. Klasen agreed and said the county has seen an increase in spread through workplaces and gatherings.

Spread within schools has been less of an issue in the county.

“It’s the broad spread in the community that is going to put them at risk,” she said.

Public Health Officer Kelli Engen said she has also seen an increase in the number of young infants who have contracted COVID-19 in the last two weeks.

Leaf asked how the county’s capacity is with hospitalization, as Wisconsin is now at 86% capacity statewide.

The Twin Cities are seeing a surge, Engen said, which does impact the county as the sickest are transferred to those hospitals. If those beds fill up, the county will have less room to transfer its residents for more acute care.

St. Croix County has a limited number of ICU beds, and McGinnis said even though there are beds that are licensed as ICU, in reality those in need of that care are transferred outside the county.

Another factor in capacity is staffing, McGinnis said. When hospital staff members have to quarantine or stay home with kids who are quarantining, then hospitals’ capacity to provide car is limited.

Stress and capacity of public health staff is also a concern, he said. As they work to address the existing spread through contact tracing and other essential needs, there are other things that could be done that they simply do not have time for.

“I think at this point in time our health care capacity is stressed, if not overcapacity,” he said.

The county is continuing to hire contact tracers to keep up with positive cases, HHS Director Bob Rohret said. It is using grand monies to hire temps, and also anticipating additional funding from the state.

The HHS Board is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Nov. 18 in the Government Center.

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