Photo by Chris Rogers
Winona County Emergency Management Assistant Violet De Stefano got a COVID-19 test during this week's testing drive in Winona. Nearly 2,600 people were tested.

Virus updates: Test drive success, WSU reopening, new cases still high




It was a busy week in local coronavirus news, as Winona County saw a surge in confirmed cases from backlogged test results, a local testing drive was a success, and Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) stuck with partially in-person elementary school classes despite infections reaching — at least momentarily — a number where the state suggests considering distance learning. Another citizen died from the virus, and a St. Charles nursing home reported its first case among a staff member. Meanwhile, the virus is spreading exponentially in La Crosse County.


Friday’s 100 cases: mostly weeks-old backlog

Winona County reported 100 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, by far the largest single-day total yet. However, local and state health officials said the majority of those cases — 74 of them — are actually weeks or months old. 

“These are past cases,” Winona County Health and Human Services Director Karen Sanness said. “Most people are done quarantining or isolating.”

Unfortunately, the delay prevented contact tracing from identifying and quarantining other potentially infected people. Find the Post’s full report on the delay and why it happened here.


Numbers hit distance learning threshold

Winona County’s official 14-day per capita case rate hit 67.75 this Thursday, as the late August spike in infections began showing up in that measurement. MDH guidelines advise school districts to consider distance learning for all ages when that number exceeds 50.

The WAPS Board discussed the situation at its Thursday night meeting, and superintendent Annette Freiheit said that, for now, WAPS will stick with partially in-person education for elementary students. The district already canceled all in-person instruction for middle and high school students.

There is reason to think the official 14-day case rate won’t stay quite that high. Unofficial numbers — based on less refined, but more current data — have already dropped below 50. Because the MDH waits a couple weeks to release official case rates to allow for lagging test results, Winona County’s massive spike in infections at the end of August is just now appearing in the 14-day case rate, causing it to soar. New infections came down significantly after the spike, and future 14-day case rates are likely to reflect that trend, as well: a spike and then a partial dip. 

The old COVID-19 cases newly reported on Friday won’t show up in future, official 14-day case rates because the MDH bases that metric on the date test specimens were collected.


Test drive: 2,575 people; at least 64 positive

Nearly 2,600 people got free, COVID-19 tests during a major testing drive in Winona on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. As of Friday afternoon, 64 participants had tested positive for COVID-19, with the last 12 test results still pending, state officials reported.

An array of organizations worked together and dedicated staff to make the event a reality: Winona County, Winona State University (WS), the city of Winona, Winona Health, Minnesota State College Southeast, Winona Area Ambulance Service, MDH, and the Minnesota State Emergency Operations Center.

“I hope it gives us a better picture of where the virus is and a better picture of our numbers,” Winona County Emergency Management Director Ben Klinger said. “I keep seeing the comments that we’re looking to drive up our numbers. That’s not what we’re looking to do. Those [COVID-19 positive] people are already here. If we identify it, we can get them into isolation and slow down the spread … We know we’re not going to stop it, but if we can slow it up and protect our most vulnerable populations so people don’t have contact with someone in a nursing home or someone with underlying conditions, that’s the idea.”

Sanness said people came from as far away as Iowa for the testing event. There were a number of young adults at the drive — which was on WSU’s campus — and many families and older adults, too, Klinger reported. “It seems to be all over the map,” he said.


Recent infections still high in Winona County; WSU to reopen

It’s not as bad as the late August spike, but Winona County’s infection rate is still high. Not including the 74 old, backlogged cases reported today, there have been 107 cases added to the county’s total in the last seven days. Local health officials asked residents to continue practicing COVID-19 basics: social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding crowds, and washing their hands.

After a two-week “quarantine” that shutdown most campus activities, WSU President Scott Olson said in a press release that the university would begin a phased reopening on Tuesday, September 22. “We will continue to monitor newly reported active cases, as well as the results from this week’s community testing event on campus,” Olson stated. “We will also continue to test, trace, and be transparent with our community while remaining vigilant in our Count on Me efforts to mask up, back up, wash up, check up, and check in.”

WSU reported on Wednesday that, between September 6-13, it had another 85 new infections among students and employees, bringing its total up from 209 to 294. That is a slight improvement over the week before, when 112 new cases that more than doubled the university’s total.

As of September 16, Minnesota State College Southeast had no new cases at its Winona campus this week and an all-time total of four cases here. Saint Mary’s University is giving the most frequent updates of any local college — daily ones — and its Winona campus had 24 cases total as of Friday, with no new cases this week.


New death; cases among nursing home staff

A Winona County resident between the ages of 65-69 died as a result of COVID-19, the MDH reported on Wednesday. The individual was not a long-term care facility resident, Sanness said. It is the county’s 18th death from COVID-19.

The nursing home Saint Anne of Winona stated on Thursday that two more staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and are in quarantine. While 11 other staff members have caught and recovered from the coronavirus this year, Saint Anne has been relatively successful in containing the virus. Only one resident has tested positive, according to Saint Anne. “All our associates are following the latest infection control protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and our state and local health departments,” the nursing home’s director wrote in a statement.

A St. Charles nursing home, Whitewater Health Services, reported one of its staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and is in quarantine. A spokesperson for the nursing home’s Wisconsin-based parent company, North Shore Healthcare, wasn’t immediately available for comment.


Virus surges in La Crosse, rising in Tremplo Co.

La Crosse County is experiencing the second-fastest rate of COVID-19 transmission in Wisconsin, according to Brown and Harvard universities’ COVID tracker. There have been 852 new cases in the last seven days — quadruple last week’s total.

After several calmer weeks, the virus is picking up speed again in Trempealeau County, with 60 new infections in the last seven days — the highest in many weeks.

Transmission in Buffalo County is steady: 20 cases in the last week.

Coronavirus gained a little speed in Wabasha and Fillmore counties — 16 and 23 cases in the past week, respectively — and was steady in Houston County: 12 cases this week.


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