The good news from Julia Lyons, Sawyer County Public Health Officer, about COVID-19, is that there has not been a noticeable increase in COVID-19 cases as more visitors have traveled to the area.
But there is worrying news, too. Lyons said there are more asymptomatic cases than anticipated, meaning there are more people who have COVID-19 but are showing no symptoms, yet are capable of spreading the coronavirus that causes the disease.
So far, not so bad
As of Tuesday afternoon, July 7, Sawyer County had recorded 13 positive cases of COVID-19 and 12 have recovered.
Lyons has been anticipating a spike in the number of new cases after the arrival of waves of visitors to the county following the fishing opener in May, Memorial Day weekend and all of the subsequent busy weekends in June.
Lyons said there have been new cases in May and June, but she does not attribute them directly to the uptick in visitors or to specific locations, such as bars and restaurants.
“I’ve been surprised,” she said. “People have been careful, more careful than they normally would have been. I’m hearing of businesses that are doing really good about seating and social distancing.”
Now Lyons is waiting to see if the influx of visitors over the July 4 weekend will correspond to new cases in the coming weeks. She still believes there could be a spike in new cases after a busy weekend, just as has occurred in other tourist areas around the country.
Positive with no symptoms
Lyons said she is also concerned that there appears to be more people than previously thought who have the virus but are asymptomatic. She notes of the county’s 13 positive cases, four were asymptomatic.
New asymptomatic cases, she said, are being identified primarily by those being tested prior to surgery. And she noted that Dane County, where Madison is located, is actively doing asymptomatic testing with assistance from the National Guard and finding a high incidence of asymptomatic positive cases.
“We know there are a lot more asymptomatic people than we realize because we are not testing asymptomatic people,” she said.
Lyons is trying to figure out a long-term strategy for COVID-19 testing, including discovering those asymptomatic cases.
She said preparations are being made to hold more pop-up testing clinics similar to those held in June by the National Guard in Hayward and Winter. She hopes people would be willing to be tested even if they don’t have symptoms.
“I hope the community will be with me,” she said.
If there is a noticeable uptick in positives, Lyons said, her focus would be finding asymptomatic cases from those whom contract tracers find had been around the COVID-19-positive persons.
Top five in testing
A key yardstick of the county’s health is whether enough tests are conducted each month so that the positive rate is statistically relevant. Lyons said that to date Sawyer County ranks among the state’s top five counties per population for testing.
Lyons believes one of the reasons neighboring counties with similar populations (such as Ashland, Bayfield, Price and Washburn, all with four or fewer cases) have not reached a similar number of positives — in the teens — as Sawyer County is because they are not testing as much.
In April 222 tests were performed in Sawyer County, with 219 negative or a positive rate of 1.35%; in May, 930 tests were performed with 925 negative, or a positive rate of 0.54%. In June 633 tests resulted in 629 negatives, or a positive rate of 0.63%.
If the county continues to test at a high level and remains under 3% positive, Lyons would consider that a good outcome. However, she is concerned that the testing for the month of July so far, 12 tests per day, is down from the 21 tests per day recorded for June.
The three best strategies for avoiding COVID-19 continue to be social distancing (maintaining at least six feet from others), avoiding crowds and wearing a mask.
However, a casual observance visiting local grocery stores is that many people are still not wearing masks.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended wearing a cloth mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to others.
One woman who runs a group home told the Record that one of the residents, a high-risk male with a heart condition, was escorted downtown on Monday, June 29, for a haircut. The man and the barbers all wore masks, but when he left the shop there were many on the sidewalks neither observing social distancing nor wearing masks. For the man’s safety he was escorted off the sidewalk and onto the street to avoid contact.
Lyons said she hears cases of people complaining that others are not wearing masks. She said it is difficult to convince people to wear masks because the incident rate of COVID-19 is so low.
“It’s not about yourself,” she said. “It is about protecting other people from your cough or sneezing. It is not about taking away your rights, but it is about protecting other people.”
A Sawyer County Community COVID-19 Screening Hotline has expanded its days of operation and will now be open seven days a week. The hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The hotline’s purpose is to help identify people in the community who may be appropriate for COVID-19 testing.
Anyone who has any respiratory symptoms — cough, fever or shortness of breath — should call the hotline at (715) 934-4518.