Visitors to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison in July are seen wearing face masks. Health experts continue to stress the need to wear face masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Visitors to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison in July are seen wearing face masks. Health experts continue to stress the need to wear face masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Rural health officials urges residents to take spread of coronavirus seriously, use precautions. 

As Wisconsin recorded 2,504 new COVID-19 cases Friday, the second-highest one-day increase, AJ Snyder believes a continued surge of virus cases is inevitable.

But the Pierce County Health Department director said she hopes the virus’ continued climb prompts people to take it more seriously, and to take added protective measures to prevent its spread. 

The explosion of positive cases that has happened across the state this month was going to happen, said Snyder, the Pierce County Health Department director, will happen, Snyder and other county health officers said, as K-12 and colleges came together for at least some version of face-to-face instruction.

“We set up an environment where spread was going to happen,” Snyder said. “We have done our best to try to manage it, but we knew it was going to happen.”

The rise in COVID-19 cases has occurred even as schools have taken steps such as altered class schedules to allow for social distancing and mandatory face masks. Driven in part by the resuming of in-person classes at universities and K-12 schools in Wisconsin, cases of COVID-19 continue to spike and show no signs of slowing. Statewide, 110,828 positive cases have been confirmed, and 1,274 people have died. 

That trend is all the more reason for people to take measures such as mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding crowds and frequent hand washing to avoid contracting and spreading the virus, Snyder said. 

“This virus is something people need to take seriously,” Snyder said. 

UW System President Tommy Thompson and university administrators said they have taken measures to contain the virus. They said students benefit from in-person learning and schools and universities that are already struggling financially would do so even more without at least some face-to-face instruction. Relatively high positive test results at college campuses are a sign of a thorough testing system, Thompson said. 

The number of positive COVID-19 cases has grown steadily since the state Supreme Court, at the request of Republicans, in May overturned an extension of the state safer-at-home order that closed schools and most businesses in an effort to contain the virus. Since then the state Legislature has not met to address the issue despite the continued increase in cases.

At the national level, President Donald Trump continues to downplay COVID-19 concerns as the US death toll from the virus has topped 200,000.

Snyder and her public health colleagues across the state have experienced the impacts of legislative inaction firsthand. During the past week in Pierce County, nearly 200 people tested positive for the virus, far more than the previous one-week high total there of 55. As of Friday 428 positive cases had been detected in the county, most during the past month. 

Many of those cases were detected at UW-River Falls, which on Sept. 18 switched to online-only coursework and having students shelter in place for at least the next two weeks after outbreaks on campus. At least 163 students there have tested positive for the virus, and 135 of those cases remain active.

Those cases haven’t been contained to the university, Snyder said, but have spread into River Falls and the surrounding area, prompting additional outbreaks. That scenario makes it difficult for her staff to conduct contact tracing –tracking those who may have been infected with the virus– of possible cases within 24 hours, she said, leading to further spread. 

Surges of COVID-19 are happening in other college communities in Wisconsin too. La Crosse County –home to UW-La Crosse– also has experienced an explosion of COVID-19 cases since the school year resumed. Outbreaks of cases at the university prompted officials to quarantine residence halls and switch to online-only coursework. 

UW-Madison officials took that action too after COVID-19 outbreaks there occurred. As of Friday at least 2,833 students and faculty had tested positive. Dane County officials said they’re concerned about the rapid spread of the virus from the university to the rest of the Madison area.        

UW-Eau Claire has not altered its class schedule, but students in some residence halls have been quarantined because of virus outbreaks there. At least 239 students have tested positive for the virus, and 357 positive cases have been connected to the university.

The growth of cases at the university has prompted outbreaks in the rest of the Eau Claire area, Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said. The number of COVID-19 cases there has risen dramatically since the school year began, from 801 on Aug. 31 to 1,776 as of Friday

The spread of COVID-19 extends beyond universities. Many K-12 Wisconsin school districts have recorded positive cases of the virus, with a handful reverting to virtual-only instruction to prevent further spread. 

In some cases parents are purposefully sending children with coronavirus into classrooms. That happened recently in schools in southeastern Wisconsin, said Kirsten Johnson, Washington-Ozaukee public health director. 

“Never in a million years did we imagine or think to account for parents deliberately sending their sick or symptomatic child to school,” Johnson told NBC News.

Cases of the virus have occurred in St. Croix County schools, that county’s health department director, Kelli Engen, said. The continued spread of the virus is a reminder “that people need to take this seriously,” she said, noting her department recently added a dozen people to help with contact tracing.  

Many rural areas in Wisconsin are experiencing outbreaks too. On Thursday 528 people were hospitalized statewide because of COVID-19, a single-day record in Wisconsin and up from 508 the previous day, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. 

In Burnett County in northwest Wisconsin, cases have risen significantly in the sparsely populated area, totaling 172 with three deaths. COVID-19 cases also have grown dramatically in the northeastern part of the state, in such rural locations as Marinette County, which has 854 positive cases and eight deaths.

Those numbers will continue to climb, Snyder said. Her department recently added six staff members to help track COVID-19 cases.

“It has become clear that we are going to see many, many more cases,” she said.