Local COVID cases shot up this past week, while health officials redoubled their calls for people to get vaccinated and recommended everyone wear face masks again.

In Winona County, new coronavirus infections have increased tenfold since late July, ballooning from three cases per week as of July 20 to 32 cases in the past seven days. In Buffalo County, there were 11 new cases in the last seven days, up from zero cases per week in early July. In Trempealeau County, cases more than tripled, from seven last week to 24 this week.

While local transmission rates are still relatively low compared to early this spring, the recent uptick is the fastest case growth Winona County has seen since last winter.

Federal, state, and local health officials say the uptick is driven by the delta variant combined with low vaccination rates. The delta variant is a much more infectious version of the novel coronavirus, which now accounts for 85 percent of Minnesota COVID cases and 80 percent of cases nationwide, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Just 53 percent of Winona County’s total population is fully vaccinated against COVID, while only 49 percent of Trempealeau and Buffalo counties’ populations are fully vaccinated.


If more were vaccinated ‘we would not have this problem’

The local surge in infections came to Buffalo County first, which was trailing the local area in vaccinations and now has one of the higher per capita case rates in Wisconsin.

Asked what people should do to protect themselves and others, Buffalo County Health Officer Dave Rynders didn’t hesitate. “Get vaccinated,” he urged, nearly before the question was finished. “It’s a no-doubter. Get vaccinated. If we were at a higher vaccination rate, we would not have this problem. It’s as simple as that.” He continued, “This is a surge among the unvaccinated, not the vaccinated. It’s because we have so many unvaccinated that it’s spreading.”

Winona County Public Health Supervisor Melanie Tatge echoed that message. “The new variant strain, it can pose a threat to have outbreaks in our unvaccinated community,” she noted. Tatge continued, “For those of us who are not vaccinated, I would strongly encourage you to become vaccinated. There is long-standing evidence that vaccines are safe, that they would provide you and your family protection, but also do a lot to help the larger community.”

COVID vaccines are free and available at many local clinics and pharmacies. Visit www.vaccines.gov for a listing of vaccination locations. For more information about vaccines, visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/index.html.


CDC: Wear masks again across local area

Winona-area residents should wear masks indoors, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated, federal guidelines recommend.

Last week, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people wear face masks in indoor, public settings if they live in counties where COVID transmission rates are “substantial” or “high.” On Monday, Winona and Trempealeau counties reached substantial transmission levels. Buffalo County moved from substantial to high levels of transmission this week. MDH and Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) leaders echoed the CDC’s recommendations.

The CDC defines “substantial” as having a seven-day case rate per 100,000 residents of 50-99 cases or a test positivity rate between 8 and 9.9 percent. “High” means a county has a case rate of 100 or more per 100,000 residents or a test positivity rate of 10 percent or higher. Positivity rates measure the percentage of COVID diagnostic tests that are positive. The seven-day case rate per 100,000 residents is 63 in Winona County, 81 in Trempealeau County, and 83 in Buffalo County, according to state data. 

The CDC previously advised that unvaccinated people should wear masks, while fully vaccinated people did not need to. Health officials said the change is an extra precaution against the rare occurrence of breakthrough infections among vaccinated people, following new evidence that, in those rare cases, vaccinated people may still be able to spread the virus, even though they are far less likely to get sick from it.

“This does not mean that the vaccines aren't doing their job,” MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “The data continue to show that the vaccines are safe and highly effective at doing their job.” She cited a recent study finding that the risk of COVID infection is 3.5 times lower for vaccinated people, the risk of illness is eight times lower, and the risk of hospitalization and death is 25 times lower. “The number one thing we can do to reduce our risk and to slow the spread of COVID-19 and this surge we’re now seeing is to get vaccinated,” Malcom urged.

“[A vaccine] is going to provide you the protection, but what we’re seeing is just like anything, nothing is 100-percent effective,” Tatge said, describing recommendations to wear masks, social distance, wash hands, and stay home when sick — in addition to getting vaccinated — as layering risk-reducing strategies on top of one another.


WSU to require masks; WAPS decision Thurs.

Starting today, students, staff, and visitors will be required to wear masks on Winona State University’s (WSU) campus, school officials announced Tuesday morning.

The move follows a statewide change. Last week, Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra directed state colleges and universities to require masks on campus if there is high or substantial transmission in their communities, as defined by the CDC. In a July 29 memo, Malhotra told 10 schools in areas with elevated transmission rates to require masks, and directed other colleges — including WSU and Minnesota State College Southeast (MSC Southeast) — to be ready to implement requirements as transmission levels rise. At the time, WSU and MSC Southeast were not on the list, but Winona County has since joined the substantial transmission category.

Also last week, MDH and Minnesota Department of Education officials recommended that K-12 schools require face masks in schools. Winona Area Public Schools Superintendent Annette Freiheit said that school staff will present to the School Board on Thursday a recommendation on whether to adopt a district mask requirement.