/ Articles / Vilas County board gets COVID-19 briefing
Schaars: ‘The true number of cases is probably never going to be well known’
The Vilas County Board of Supervisors at its meeting Tuesday, March 24, received what amounted to a formal briefing regarding what the county’s health department is doing to combat the COVID-19 pandemic locally.
The county’s public health director, Laurel Dreger, said the role of the public health department is to protect the health of the community.
“As you know, Vilas County has one of the highest percentages of older adults in the state,” she said. “With regard to COVID-19, this is considered a high risk group. It is the responsibility of public health to be proactive and protect this vulnerable population.”
Dreger said since the existence of COVID-19 was first made public in December and got “closer to home,” personnel in her department have been working “seven days a week” and at times, 12 to 14 hours a day, “trying to take in as much information as possible so that we will know what steps to take as we go forward.”
Aside from presidential and gubernatorial press conferences, she said that information gathering and planning also occurs during conference calls with medical professionals and the state department of health services “seven days a week.”
Dreger said gleaning important, relevant information from many emails the department receives each day is also done.
She also went over procedures her staff follows to track individuals who have been tested for COVID-19 and who may have been exposed to the virus with the help of a computer system known as the Wisconsin Electronic Disease Surveillance System (WEDSS).
“We contact the patients, discuss symptoms and exposure history and determine the length of their isolation or quarantine based on those facts,” Dreger said.
As of Tuesday, March 24, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Vilas County.
“If, or more likely when, we do get our first case in Vilas County, we will receive the results through this system (WEDSS),” Dreger said. “We will contact that patient and we will conduct a complete contact tracing of everything that patient has been doing and where they have been to determine who else in the community may have become exposed so we can notify all those persons they need to quarantine.”
She said then there would be contact made with those exposed to COVID-19 over the 14 day quarantine period.
“At times in public health, the recommendations we make may not be easy or popular,” Dreger said, closing with they will defend those recommendations for the “health of the community.”
Supervisor Al Bauman asked about the time it takes to get test results.
Dreger said testing is now on a tiered basis with the tests of people hospitalized, especially those who may be in an intensive care unit, and health care workers who have fallen ill receiving the highest priority.
“When they reach state lab or the Milwaukee County Health Department, they are the ones that get top priority and they get run through first,” she said. “There are other, lower priority tests, ones that don’t fit the right picture for having this (COVID-19), they may actually get sent to outlying labs and those may take longer. So, we can have lab tests that are pending for six or seven days. Some of them can come through within 24, 48 hours, but some of them take longer depending on the priority.”
Supervisor Steve Doyen asked who a person should contact if they think they need to be tested.
“They need to contact their health care provider,” Dreger said. “At the health care provider’s office, there’s a triage system set up where they (the patient) call in their symptoms, their exposures and then based on that, they determine if that person needs to be tested.”
Dr. Michael Schaars, who works at Marshfield Clinic in Minocqua and is a 22-year resident of Eagle River with experience including that of emergency medical physician for hospitals in Eagle River and at Howard Young Medical Center, also spoke to the situation with COVID-19 testing.
“We’re really not testing people in the public anymore unless they are sick enough that they require hospitalization,” he said, expanding on and reiterating Dreger’s point about COVID-19 testing. “If they’re already hospitalized, we test those people. The only other ones we test are health care workers just because we need to know if they are positive.”
Answering a question from supervisor Chuck Hayes regarding availability of test kits, masks and ventilators, Schaars said as everyone is aware, this part of Wisconsin — Vilas and Oneida counties, in this case — has hospitals “relatively small” in comparison to heavier populated areas.
“The hospital here in Eagle River is not a hospital that takes care of sick people on ventilators ... so there are no ventilators here in Eagle River,” he said. “At Howard Young, I believe they have five ventilators over there.”
Schaars said plans have been for the new Marshfield Clinic hospital in Minocqua, when it opens, to have two ventilators. So, that “gives a little bit of an idea what we have.”
As for masks, he said they are just one component of personal protective equipment, or PPE.
“When we talk about health care, we talk about masks, we talk about eye protection, gloves we wear and also a gown,” Schaars said. “All of this is in short supply.”
He said the masks are particularly important.
“There’s a nationwide shortage of masks,” Schaars said. “Part of that reason is we’re using them at a higher rate. The public is using them.”
He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “has made some unprecedented changes” to accommodate that.
“One of those changes is we used to give any patient that came in to be seen, any patient that came into a clinic, if they showed any symptoms, had a cough, congestion, fever or anything, they were right away administered a mask to put on a patient,” Schaars said. “We’re no longer doing that at all.”
He said patients are expected to now provide their own masking, even if it’s something as simple as a bandana or scarf.
“We don’t have the masks to give,” Schaars said.
Doyen said he had a question about why it was there was very little information put out regarding people who have had COVID-19 and recovered from it “or have it and don’t even get bad symptoms.”
“It’s like a minor case of the cold or something,” he said, noting he believes it’s important the public should be aware, along with how many confirmed cases of COVID-19 there are or have been and how many people have died from it how many people have also survived.
“You’re right,” Schaars said. “I think the bigger question, or the bigger point of this is those numbers are going to be difficult to ever come up with because knowing we haven’t had widespread testing to this point that’s ramping up and I mentioned a little while ago, we’re no longer going to be testing the general public unless they’re sick enough to be in a hospital. The true number of cases is probably never going to be well known.”
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at [email protected]