The National Guard is being deployed in Wisconsin to test for COVID-19.
Wisconsin National Guard members gather samples at a drive-up COVID-19 testing site near Baraboo Wednesday. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Sauk Co. health official and the National Guard limit dormitory cases

All it took was hearing about two international students living in Wisconsin Dells testing positive for COVID-19 and a site visit to the dormitory-style facility where 170 more students were living for the public health officer of Sauk County to step in and take action.

“We issued a quarantine order that basically shut the place down,” said Tim Lawther, of his decision to self-quarantine all the residents of the Hiawatha Residence Hall on Sunday, April 12.

The facility houses international students with J-1 visas, most of whom work at the Dells during the summer, Lawther said. This year, the students are from 15 countries, with the majority from Jamaica, Ecuador and Peru, he said. 

Because Lawther took immediate action to self-quarantine the residents, community spread of the virus has been contained to 15 people, sparing some 150 more from contracting the virus. As of Thursday, one staff member and 14 students have tested positive, with a few test results pending, Lawther said. 

“Public health officers have the ability to issue orders in order to respond quickly to an imminent public health threat, especially when you are dealing with a communicable disease like COVID-19,” Lawther said. “It’s state law.”

Lawther said he had little trouble deciding to issue the order once he went to Hiawatha and saw there was “not much social distancing occurring.” Typically, there are three to four people per room, he said. 

“It was a challenging scenario. It became clear there was more going on than we originally thought,” he said. “I issued the order and then took time to separate folks and quarantine them. If they had symptoms they were isolated in their own rooms.”

His quarantine order, separate from the state’s safer-at-home order, was set to expire at 7 p.m. Sunday. Lawther said he wanted all the residents tested before lifting the order so he contacted DHS. They sent in the National Guard on Saturday.

“They ran an incredibly efficient and well orchestrated operation,” said Lawther. “To be clear, they tested 170 people in four hours. Everyone ended up being tested that day.”

The Wisconsin National Guard’s role in testing the residents of Hiawatha is part of an expanding effort to assist the state in collecting samples in site-specific areas.

There are now 11 teams with 300 troops being deployed to correction facilities, senior living facilities, even American Foods Group in Green Bay to address the outbreak among the meat processor’s employees. 

So far, 3,200 samples have been collected statewide by the National Guard.

On Wednesday, a National Guard testing team returned to Sauk County at Lawther’s request to set up a drive-through testing site in Baraboo. Lawther said another 130 Sauk County residents were tested.

Results are still pending, but for those who did take advantage of the free service, having their nares swabbed was all about peace of mind.

“I just want to know,” said Kathy Wilson of Baraboo, shortly after her sample was collected. “It could be so many other things, but my husband is almost 65, he’s diabetic and he has some additional health issues. I want to know for my own piece of mind.”

Wilson said for the past week she has had a cough, a “fullness in her lungs that makes it difficult to breath,” fatigue, chills and an “on-and-off fever.”

The Schroders feel the same way. Dorothy is 82 and her husband, Gilbert, is 83. Neither had symptoms but Dorothy worked the April 7 election. She said she was not wearing a mask but workers maintained proper distancing from voters.

Wisconsin National Guard Cpls. Emily Rymkus gathers a sample from Dorothy Schroeder for testing of COVID-19 at a drive-up site near Baraboo Wednesday. (Photo © Andy Manis)

“They are all local people but we don’t know where all they’ve been,” said Dorothy of the voters. “Ever since I worked that day I’ve been anxious to get checked.”

Capt. David Eischen has been a member of the Wisconsin National Guard for roughly 20 years. He was in charge of the sample-collecting operation at the Hiawatha residence hall and the drive-through in Baraboo. 

For his civilian job he works as a physician assistant at a hospital in Sheboygan. This allows him to bring a specific skill set to this medical mission, he said.  

“I understand personal protective equipment and I have an understanding of the pathophysiology of the virus,” said Eischen. “I then help my team understand. That way, when they are taking specimens and interacting with people in the community, they can make sure they are making the right choices to stay safe.” 

Wisconsin National Guard Cpt. Dave Eischen, center, talks to fellow Guard members at a drive-up COVID-19 testing site near Baraboo Wednesday. (Photo © Andy Manis)

As for the decision Lawther had to make to quarantine 172 visa students, he said he thinks it was the right call. He expressed pride in the community coming together to check in with the students daily.

If they needed anything, including toothpaste, food, even sessions with behavioral health professionals, people stepped up and got them what they needed to remain in isolation for two weeks. 

“I think we did the right thing,” Lawther said. “Everyone from the National Guard to the members of our community … I’m proud of the entire team. I think everyone did well.”

Eischen agreed. While the Guard members are often deployed to assist with national disasters, helping to fight the spread of COVID-19 feels different, he said.

“This is a very unique mission,” Eischen said. “We are helping the people of Wisconsin. I think that is something everyone on the team is able to appreciate.”