by CHRIS ROGERS
There is still a lot of coronavirus going around in Winona County, but it has improved in the last week. Infections shot up in late August, largely due to an outbreak among Winona State University (WSU) students, with Winona County adding a whopping 192 cases during the worst seven-day stretch. In the last seven days, there have been 72 additional cases. That’s still several times worse than mid-August’s 15 cases a week.
“We saw that initial huge spike for a couple of weeks and now we’re seeing kind of a downturn,” Winona County Health and Human Services Director Karen Sanness said. “We are kind of anticipating maybe within this week seeing that number crawl back up just because of Labor Day weekend.”
State and local authorities also offered free COVID-19 testing to people with or without symptoms in Winona on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. It runs until 7 p.m. today at a Winona State University parking lot on the corner of Mark and Main streets. Visit www.primarybio.com/r/winona to register.
Sanness said she expects that testing drive will result in health officials identifying more cases. “With any mass testing, we’re going to see an increase in cases,” she stated. However, that is a good thing. That means people walking around with contagious infections are able to be identified and isolated early, before the virus spreads any more. “We’re not out there trying to pump up our numbers, we’re trying to catch the spread,” Sanness stated.
Meanwhile, new infections in Buffalo County are down slightly after an early September spike — when there were 29 cases in one week — but still fairly high for the population: 18 new cases in the last seven days. New cases in Trempealeau County are rising again, with 35 infections in the last seven days — the worst since mid-August.
New infections skyrocketed in La Crosse County this week, where there were over 500 new cases in seven days. That’s a more than twice as much as La Crosse County’s serious spike earlier this summer.
WSU imposes two-week shutdown to tamp down outbreak
Last Wednesday, WSU began a two-week “quarantine,” shutting down most in-person activities on campus and asking students to stay home at their dorms and apartments as much as possible. “The self-imposed quarantine will reduce the number of people physically present on campus for the next two weeks,” university staff explained in a statement. “Courses with face-to-face instruction will either shift entirely online, or if absolutely necessary, require increased precautions in order to continue in-person instruction.”
The announcement came as the number of WSU students and employees with COVID-19 infections more than doubled last week, jumping from 97 to 236. WSU is due to release updated figures tomorrow. It is one of the three most serious outbreaks at colleges in the state.
Though WSU did not report any serious illness among students or staff, state and local health officials have warned that widespread transmission among young adults can spill over into more vulnerable populations. Since the outbreak, there has been a significant uptick in infections among non-college-aged residents, as well.
Better to hold online classes for two weeks than the whole semester, WSU President Scott Olson stated, adding that if new cases don’t drop after two weeks, WSU could extend the closure. “We’re pretty confident this is going to work to flatten the line a little bit, so we’ll spend some time in the future thinking about what those future mitigations may be, but for now our goal is to flatten the line and stay in the yellow,” he said.
University leaders also reported that 60 students have been warned for violating COVID-19 precautions and state rules for masking and social distancing. Students can be disciplined for off-campus actions that violate the student code of conduct and jeopardize campus health and safety, and the university relies on students and local police to report such incidents, WSU Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Life Denise McDowell said. Under the school’s student discipline policy, repeat offenders could be required to complete community service, write letters of apology, or face other sanctions, she explained. In an extreme situation, three or more violations could result in a suspension, McDowell added. Expulsion is an option, but that would be a last resort, she stated. “My student code of conduct cannot even fathom having to expel a student for not wearing a mask,” McDowell said.
“We are holding students accountable,” Olson stated. “We are taking sanctions against students that are not complying. We are trying to take an educational approach, which means encouraging good behavior, but if students aren’t following that, we do have the ability to impose sanctions,” he added.
The city of Winona also began cracking down on crowded bars a few weeks ago, sending fire officials to inspect bars’ capacity on weekends. The action has significantly improved the situation and most bars have done a great job, city officials said.