The coronavirus pandemic struck close to home in Bayfield County Thursday when it tallied its first confirmed case of the deadly respiratory disease that’s circling the globe and shuttering businesses, schools and governments.
Tiny Bayfield, seemingly safe in its perch surrounded by bucolic farms and Lake Superior, proved that there’s no safe harbor from the pandemic when a Bayfield High School student tested positive for COVID-19.
Bayfield County Health Officer Sara Wartman said her office will spend the next several days trying to track down those people who had “close contact” with the student to give them guidance and monitor them.
That could be a lot of people.
“I have some suspicion that this person was in school for a couple of days before she was symptomatic,” Wartman said.
Wartman, taking great care not to identify the student or reveal personal medical information, said the patient’s immediate family also is being monitored for symptoms. The student had recently traveled where there is community spread of the coronavirus, and symptoms, which include fever, a cough and shortness of breath, developed shortly afterward, Wartman said.
Symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after contact with someone who has the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I would not be surprised if we see additional cases,” Wartman said.
For now, one of Wartman’s biggest concerns is the number of people in Bayfield County who fear they were exposed and want to be tested. Even those who had close contact with the student don’t need to be tested unless they fall ill, she said, so test kits and lab time can be saved for those who most need them.
Wartman is not the sole official in Bayfield grappling with the positive test. Mayor Gordon Ringberg said Thursday the city still hadn’t received a lot of information about the situation.
“We’re very concerned about this,” he said. “We don’t know who’s been in contact with this one case.”
Ringberg had hoped Bayfield’s relative isolation would prevent the coronavirus from reaching its shores even as he mentally reviewed the number of travelers and snowbirds who would be returning home as spring approached.
The city had plans in place such as closing City Hall, he said, but also has limited staff and resources.
In the meantime, the number of businesses closing their doors seemingly grows daily, further hammering the small community in the no-man’s economic land between winter and summer.
To help businesses keep their customers updated and locate possible state assistance, the Bayfield Chamber and Visitor Center has been collecting information and posting updates online at bayfield.org, marketing director Paige Rautio said.
At least at this time of year the city doesn’t see a lot of tourist traffic that could bring in more coronavirus cases, Ringberg said.
The mayor urged residents not to pay heed to “panicky rumors” about the city closing down entirely sometime in the future. Officials will follow the lead of state and federal authorities, he said.
Overall, however, Ringberg’s been proud of how citizens immediately responded to pleas to take precautions, such as isolating themselves, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“They took this to heart right away,” Ringberg said. “They are working together to keep their spirits up.”
The arrival of COVID-19 demonstrated that residents were right to take the pandemic seriously when the Bayfield County Health Department informed the School District that it had confirmed a student had the coronavirus.
“We are working cooperatively with the Bayfield County Health Department,” Superintendent Jeff Gordon said.
Although the School District had posted information that the families of high school students have been asked to self-quarantine, the Health Department clarified that only close contacts would need to self-isolate. Those contacts include the teachers of the student and classmates who shared the same classroom, and encompass only those in the high school.
Anne-Marie Coy of the Bayfield Health Department said nurses would provide information to the affected student’s contacts and teachers and call them daily to monitor their health. And Wartman said the department has developed an electronic system to help those close-contact residents self-monitor and report, so health department officials don’t have to phone them all every day for updates.
The bottom line, Wartman said, is anyone who doesn’t feel well should stay home — if not for themselves, then for others.
“One of the best things the public needs to hear right now is that to prevent the spread of illness in the community, we all have to limit our exposure to the public,” she said. “We don’t necessarily need to go to Walmart and see if they have 96 rolls of toilet paper if we don’t need it.”
Reporter Peter J. Wasson contributed to this report.