The first Wisconsin resident to be diagnosed with the new — and more virulent — strain of COVID-19 is an Eau Claire County resident, and Barron County Public Health reminds people that it’s imperative to take seriously the safety measures, such as wearing a mask, that can slow the spread of the disease.
The Eau Claire resident who tested positive for the B.1.1.7. variant first discovered circulating in England in November traveled internationally and became sick after returning home, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.
The patient tested positive at the end of December, and the state Department of Health Services discovered the variant as it performs whole genome sequencing on a small percentage of cases while surveilling the spread of the pandemic.
DHS released the information Jan. 12 and notified the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, which investigated and found that the patient made no close contacts out of the household and everyone was quarantined. Giese would not describe the person further.
The variant is more contagious than the original COVID-19 strain but does not appear to cause more severe illness or increase the risk of death, said Laura Sauve, health officer and public health manager with Barron County Public Health.
“It is close, so we need to take this very seriously,” Sauve said.
She emphasized the importance of taking steps proven to curtail the spread of the disease. Wear masks, maintain social distance, stay at home if ill and get tested, she implored.
And getting vaccinated also ranked high on Sauve’s list of must-do’s.
The vaccine should be effective against the variant. Dr. Ken Johnson, chief medical officer for Prevea Health, said it’s “highly unlikely” that it will be resistant.
The question is when will the vaccine make it into the hands of the general public.
According to Barron County Public Health, police and fire department personnel started to be vaccinated beginning Monday. The state makes the decision as to how and to whom to distribute the vaccine, not Barron County.
Barron County Public Health is talking with health care systems and pharmacies to possibly set up a vast vaccination clinic in the future, but Sauve noted that there is still the matter of supply.
The appearance of the variant so near is one more twist Barron County Public Health has had to deal with during the pandemic.
“It’s been a pretty wild year,” Sauve said. “The stress and hours are putting a strain on all of us.”
In terms of staffing, Public Health had to add 21 contract staff members to handle tasks such as contact tracing and case investigations. The department didn’t have trouble finding workers, Sauve said, but it still presented a huge strain.
On the positive side, Public Health forged stronger relationships with health care partners and enjoyed great support from the public, Sauve said.
The pandemic also strained the agency’s budget, but between October 2020 and 2022, it will receive $485,200 of the $86 million in additional funds the state promised local and tribal health departments to support testing and contact tracing, as well as vaccine administration.
DHS also plans to write a weekly newsletter to directly inform the public about the COVID-19 response and vaccine rollout. The public can sign up to receive it by visiting tinyurl.com/y59xukr9.
Sauve urged people to keep their eyes open for more information about the county’s response via media outlets, Barron County Public Health Facebook page at facebook.com/barroncountypublichealth and the county’s website at barroncountywi.gov.