by CHRIS ROGERS
COVID cases continued their sharp rise in Winona County this week, with 56 new infections reported in the last seven days, the highest level since May and nearly double last week’s 32 infections.
COVID infections shot up in Trempealeau County, with 59 new cases in the past week, more than double last week’s 24 cases. In Buffalo County, infections were steady, with 12 new cases this week, compared to 11 last week.
Trempealeau County Public Health Information Officer Kaila Baer said the rising infections are concerning. “We had a while there where there were very few cases per day … Things had returned to somewhat normal, but now with cases rising again, we really need to consider masking and how big are your gatherings and getting vaccinated to prevent severe illness among the people who are getting it,” she explained.
Trempealeau County is currently averaging 29 cases per day per 100,000 residents — the highest level since January. That’s on par with last October, shortly before the pandemic reached its highest surge in Trempealeau County, with well over 100 cases per day per capita in November.
Last winter’s surge pushed local hospital wards and intensive care units near capacity. So far, hospitalizations are lower this summer, with three Trempealeau County residents currently hospitalized for COVID, according to the county, and no new deaths reported since June.
In Buffalo County, COVID hospitalizations ticked up in late July, with 10 since July 16, after having zero in June and early July. There were zero new hospitalizations this week and three last week, Buffalo County Public Health Educator Darby DeGross reported.
There were no new hospitalizations for coronavirus in Winona County in the past week, but two residents were hospitalized the prior week, including one who needed intensive care, according to Winona County Public Health Supervisor Melanie Tatge. Statewide, the number of Minnesotans hospitalized for COVID has nearly doubled, from an average of 16 hospitalizations per day in the first week of July to 29 hospitalizations per day in the last seven days.
“The hospitalizations definitely aren’t as high as they were before,” Baer noted, adding that they may rise. She continued, “But with the vaccines, if you are vaccinated against COVID-19, people have a more mild illness, so that’s preventing more hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 compared to December and January of last year, where nearly no one was vaccinated.”
Asked if Winona Health leaders expected hospitalizations to rise, Winona Health CEO Rachelle Schultz said that they are very low so far, but responded, “What has happened around the country is, when you have pockets or areas with low vaccination, the experience is there is high hospitalization. If there’s high vaccination, there’s low hospitalization. We sit right on that cusp, because we’re at about 50 percent for our county.” Fifty-three percent of Winona County’s population is fully vaccinated, according to MDH.
“If you haven’t been vaccinated and you are eligible, get vaccinated,” Baer said. “That is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from severe illness and protect the people who can’t get vaccinated.” To find local vaccination clinics, visit www.vaccines.gov. Trempealeau County is offering free vaccines at Ashley for the Arts in Arcadia, on Memorial Park Drive near the art fair, from 4-8 p.m. on August 12-14.
Other safety measures, like hand washing and staying home when sick are still important, Baer continued. “Beside that, we are asking everyone to wear a mask in public, because this delta strain is the primary variant in Wisconsin, and it is more easily spread than the previous variant … Masks do work, so wearing that mask in public places will prevent someone from unknowingly spreading it someone else.”
Because Winona, Trempealeau, and Buffalo counties meet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) definitions for “substantial” or “high” COVID transmission, the CDC recommends everyone, regardless of vaccination, wear masks in indoor, public settings.
Winona Health to staff: Get vaccinated or tested
Starting September 7, Winona Health will require its staff to get vaccinated against COVID or complete weekly tests for the virus, Schultz said. Several other U.S. and Minnesota health systems have enacted similar requirements for their staff amid rising cases nationwide of the much more infectious delta variant.
Already, 81 percent of Winona Health staff are vaccinated, Schultz reported. However, the organization felt the extra requirement was necessary, both to protect against illness and maintain staffing levels — because unvaccinated people must quarantine if exposed to COVID-positive individuals. With staffing for skilled care givers already tight, she said, “We can’t afford to have any of our clinical care staff or anybody out on quarantine or sick … We need our folks here to take care of our community members.”
Schultz noted that some staff may have medical reasons for not taking the vaccine and the testing option is open to them. “So I honor people’s choices with that,” she said. “But as we’ve watched the delta variant explode across parts of the country … we will eventually will get it, and you just watch what’s happening in some of those hot spots. Again, we can prevent it. We don’t want to go through last year’s experience again.”
The Winona Health CEO encouraged community members to get vaccinated, wear masks, and practice hand washing, social distancing, and staying home when sick. “Those simple things really do work,” she said. “Any day, anyone can come in either to urgent care [and get a COVID vaccine], or if you have a clinic appointment, we’re happy to get your vaccine at your appointment,” Schultz added. For people with concerns about vaccine safety, such as child-bearing women, Schultz advised, “Talk to your doctor. Have that conversation. Don’t rely on social media.”
No Winona, Winona County mask mandates
The city of Winona has no plans to mandate masks at businesses citywide and has considered but does not intend to require masks in city-owned buildings, City Manager Steve Sarvi said last Friday. Similarly, Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz said that the county will follow CDC guidelines: recommending staff and visitors wear masks, but not requiring them in county-owned buildings. Neighboring Buffalo County recently began requiring visitors and employees to wear masks again in the county courthouse.
Regarding a mask requirement in city-owned buildings, Sarvi said, “It’s certainly being considered, but we haven’t made that decision right now.” As for a citywide mandate, he stated, “I think the only thing that’s really going to influence us to take that measure, again, is going to be a change in the numbers [of infections and hospital capacity] … We just need to see the trend lines change dramatically for us to consider making that recommendation to the mayor to go back to mandatory masks.”
The County Board discussed on Tuesday the possibility of requiring masks in county buildings or enacting a countywide mask mandate at all businesses. County Board member Chris Meyer argued for requiring masks at county offices. “I tend to feel that if someone has to come into this office or the license bureau because they need to do legal business, they shouldn’t have to put themselves at risk,” she said. When the state, federal, and city governments are passing on mask mandates, why should the county enact one? County Board member Steve Jacob asked. He added, “We’re saying, ‘We know vaccines are the solution, so let’s mandate masks.’ That doesn’t add to me.” The County Board postponed further discussion to a future meeting.
WSU: Vaccine requirement under consideration
Winona State University (WSU) President Scott Olson said the entire Minn State system, which also includes Minnesota State College Southeast, has discussed requiring students be vaccinated, but many legal and logistical questions remain. The University of Minnesota (U of M) and Saint Mary’s University recently announced they will require students to be vaccinated once vaccines receive federal full approval. Olson said the U of M and private colleges are subject to fewer legal restrictions than Minn State schools are.
“If the question is, is [a vaccine requirement] in discussion? Is it under consideration? The answer is yes, along with other possible approaches,” Olson stated. Minn State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra wants the state colleges and universities system to act as one with regard to a vaccine mandate, Olson said, and so far no decision have been made. “It’s being very closely monitored and discussed,” he added. “And what the limits of what our authority are and … whether every college and university should move together and require the same thing, or whether they might be differences, is unresolved.”
“Students will be moving in next week, and these things won’t be in place for move-in day,” Olson said, while adding that policy changes could happen as soon as next week.
Currently, WSU encourages all students to get vaccinated and has been offering vaccine clinics on campus throughout the summer. Olson noted that student-athletes are subject to an NCAA requirement to be tested three times a week or show proof of vaccination. WSU Senior Director of Communications Andrea Northam pointed out that getting vaccinated will help students avoid spending days or weeks stuck in a quarantine. “There is the added benefit of students who want to continue your studies and continue living and working, if you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to quarantine even if you have an exposure,” she noted.
WSU and other Minn State schools will require masks when COVID transmission levels are substantial or high, as defined by the CDC. They are currently substantial in Winona County.