Gov. Tony Evers delivers a primetime speech to urge Wisconsin to stay home at a time of record COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

WISCONSIN RAPIDS – Wood County has seen a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths over the past few weeks, and health officials say they’re likely to continue increasing as the holiday season approaches.

Throughout the pandemic, Wood County has been able to keep its cases relatively low compared to other counties in the state, but it now is facing a surge. As of Wednesday afternoon, the county had reported 2,717 cases of COVID-19. Of those, 767 are considered active cases. The total number of cases in the county jumped by 771 since Nov. 2.

Wood County’s positivity rate for COVID-19 tests on Oct. 1 was 12.7%. It’s now at 41.6%, said Sue Kunferman, director of the Wood County Health Department.

Health officials have reported that 16 people in the county have died from complications related to COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Six of those deaths have been reported since Nov. 2.

Wisconsin has become one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots as new cases in the state continues to increase by the thousands each day. Hospitals throughout the state are strained and quickly filling up with critically ill patients. As of Tuesday, the state had just 128 intensive care beds available. Experts estimated that those remaining beds could fill within a week if current trends continue.

In a public address Tuesday evening, Gov. Tony Evers urged Wisconsinites to stay home as much as possible to try to get the state’s outbreak under control.

Aspirus health system, which opened an additional COVID-19 unit at Aspirus Wausau and expanded care options at Aspirus Medford Hospital to treat more patients, has seen patient numbers steadily rise.

Melissa Resch, a nurse who works on the coronavirus medical unit at Aspirus Wausau Hospital, talks with a colleague. (Photo: Courtesy Aspirus Wausau Hospital)

As of Wednesday afternoon, Aspirus Wausau Hospital was treating 74 COVID-19 patients, an increase of 20 patients in just one week.

Aspirus Riverview Hospital in Wisconsin Rapids was treating 12 COVID-19 patients Wednesday, an increase of one patient from last week. Throughout the entire Aspirus system, which includes 10 hospitals across Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, there are 133 patients being treated for COVID-19.

Marshfield Medical Center went from treating 18 COVID-19 patients in late October to now treating 66 patients. The Marshfield Health System, which includes nine hospitals across central, northern and eastern Wisconsin, is now treating 141 COVID-19 patients, an increase from 54 patients in late October.

Kunferman said she expects cases in the county will continue to rise with Thanksgiving and Christmas approaching.

Most of the community spread in the county is driven by people who have tested positive for the virus but aren’t isolating themselves, Kunferman said. Large gatherings, such as weddings and birthday parties, also contribute to the spread, as well as people who won’t share who their close contacts are with contact tracers.

The health department has hired about 30 contact tracers, but it has fallen behind in following up on positive cases due to the recent influx. It takes the department about 48 hours to get in touch with close contacts, Kunferman said.

Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools officials have begun conducting their own contact tracing to help ease the burden.

Kunferman said local school districts are doing a good job containing the virus within their buildings, but Lincoln High School Principal Ronald Rasmussen indicated in a letter to parents that students are making decisions outside of school that could affect their ability to keep buildings open.

Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools opted to send students back to school buildings at the beginning of the year. Elementary school students went back to in-person learning full time, while middle school and high school students were split into two cohort groups and alternate between in-person and online classes throughout the week.

As of Wednesday morning, there were 35 active cases of COVID-19 within the WRPS system, including both staff members and students. The district has had 114 positive cases since Sept. 1.

Over the past two weeks, Lincoln High School has ranged from having 35 to 60 students per cohort quarantined after being exposed to someone with the virus, Rasmussen told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.

In the Nov. 6 letter, Rasmussen said that they have no evidence of “in-school” transmission. However, he said they are aware of several Halloween parties that took place recently, with one party that had as many as 50 people and another that had up to 30 people. Some people in attendance were supposed to be quarantining, Rasmussen said. There were several individuals who were in attendance that were showing symptoms of COVID-19 about a week after the parties, he said.

Rasmussen also said there are students who try to attend school even though they are showing symptoms or students who have tested positive for the virus but continue to work at establishments in the community.

Buy Photo

Students make their way to the main entrance on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, at Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln High School in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. Tuesday was the first day of in-person learning since March. (Photo: Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

Quarantines have led to difficulties, with teachers needing to deliver some lessons twice — one for in-person and one for virtual learners. Some teachers have taken to live-streaming classes at school so virtual learners can participate from home. 

Most school staff members who have tested positive for the virus have luckily had minor symptoms that allowed them to continue teaching lessons from home, Rasmussen said.

Students do a great job with safety protocols while inside school buildings, he said, but it’s important that containing the virus is a community effort so they can continue to hold in-person classes.

The School District of Marshfield did not reply to a reporter’s request for an interview.

Kunferman said the battle against the virus hasn’t been lost yet. Everything depends on how people respond to the crisis. Control can be regained if people do their part by wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding large gatherings and staying home if exposed or if symptoms are present, Kunferman said.

“Someone asked me if I could tell people one thing, what would it be? My answer? Love Thy Neighbor, and act accordingly,” Kunferman said. 

Contact USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter Melissa Siegler at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @Marie2Melissa.

RELATED: ‘Close contacts’ refuse to quarantine as central Wisconsin health workers plead for compliance with safety measures to stop COVID-19

RELATED: While the rest of America focuses on election drama, life for those inside a Wisconsin COVID ward is ‘all-consuming’

RELATED: Hundreds of health workers across Wisconsin are sidelined by COVID-19 infections, exposure

Our subscribers make this coverage possible. Subscribe to a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin site today with one of our special offers and support local journalism.

Read or Share this story: