The Bay Area’s COVID death toll abruptly shot up in November when 11 people died of the disease in Ashland and Bayfield counties.
“It is the saddest death report I’ve ever had to make,” Bayfield County Health Officer Sara Wartman said.
The deaths are the latest signal to local health officials that the pandemic isn’t easing any time soon. Bayfield County’s overall COVID case activity has surged upward again in recent weeks, especially among the 0-19 age group. Wartman said 370 Bayfield County residents have been diagnosed with COVID since Nov. 1.
“We had the five deaths in basically the last two and a half weeks,” Wartman said. That follows one COVID death in October, two in September, one each in August, July and June and none in May. Since COVID arrived in Bayfield County, a total of 30 deaths have been blamed on the virus; 23 more in Ashland County.
“It is definitely accelerating, and what we noticed is that the deaths were fairly quick. They got sick and they went downhill pretty quickly,” Wartman said. “We had one that was sick for about a month, but otherwise, they had pretty rapid declines.”
Wartman said that clinics and hospitals here and across the region are reaching full capacity and intensive care unit beds are almost unavailable in northern Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Hospital Association’s survey of the 26 hospitals in the 15-county northwest region showed that three of 72 ICU beds were immediately available as of Monday, with two of 67 total intermediate care beds available. For the seven-day period ending Dec. 3, there had been 33 COVID deaths in the northwest region.
“We are seeing a rate of deaths that is concerning to me when you consider that there are three vaccines that are available,” Wartman said. “We are looking at a lot of these people who are getting seriously ill, who are not fully vaccinated.”
Wartman said 60% of recently diagnosed patients were unvaccinated and vaccinated patients who fell ill tended to have milder symptoms than the unvaccinated.
One bright spot in the COVID picture is that there has been a strong uptick in the number of people getting shots, Ashland County Health Officer Liz Szot said. A walk-in vaccination clinic Tuesday at the county Health and Human Services Department vaccinated or boosted 130 people before vaccines were gone.
“I don’t think we’ve ever run out before,” she said. “Our clinic was scheduled to start at 11 a.m. and by 2 p.m. we were officially out of doses.”
Szot said most patients at the clinic got boosters, but there were others coming in for their first dose and others completing their second dose.
It was gratifying for Szot, who like Wartman is trying to stem her own surge in COVID cases. Ashland County’s six deaths in November are just less than a quarter of the total COVID deaths reported by the county since the pandemic began — a jump that alarms Szot.
“With any loss, it is significant. The majority of these individuals were of advanced age, but that does not minimize the loss in any way,” she said.
She said the increase in deaths matched the pattern set in the fall and winter of 2020.
“Back then, we went from three individuals to 16, then we stayed at that 16 level all through the summer pretty much until this October,” Szot said.
She said the county has been seeing 20 to 30 new cases of COVID a day.
“I think we’ve come close to some of our record days, again,” Szot said. “A good number of the cases we are seeing are people who are unvaccinated, or who have not yet completed their series. We do see some breakthrough cases from people who are fully vaccinated, about 20 to 30%, but for the most part, the majority of the cases are in unvaccinated individuals.”
The uptick in demand for the vaccine is a hopeful sign, she said.
“I think with the holiday season coming, I think people mare looking to take additional precautions if they have plans on traveling, or are visiting family that are not in their normal social circle, completing the vaccine series or getting that booster dose before they go and visit grandparents,” Szot said. “Taking that extra step will go a long way.”