The current flare-up in coronavirus cases in Rock County and elsewhere is largely due to the prevalence of the virus’s delta variant. According to the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, delta cases in the state on Aug. 3 reached 373, which amounted to an increase of 150% over the previous week.
One of the reasons for the spike in overall COVID-19 numbers is the low rate at which people are getting vaccinated. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported that from Jan. 1 to July 22, 98% of COVID-19 cases were among those who were unvaccinated.
While the vaccines are not 100% effective in preventing someone from contracting the virus, so-called breakthrough cases are extremely rare. Nick Zupan, epidemiologist for the Rock County Health Department, said only 100 vaccinated local residents contracted COVID-19 since the vaccine was rolled out.
Furthermore, vaccinated people are less likely to suffer serious illness or be hospitalized if they do become infected.
“The vaccine is preventing severe illness in the community,” Zupan said. “With the delta variant circulating and being much more contagious and easily spreading in the community, we want to make sure people are protected.”
Currently, there are five recorded cases of the delta variant in Rock County, but the actual numbers are likely to be higher because the county doesn’t get genetic sequencing in every positive test. The sequencing process, conducted by the state’s laboratory of hygiene, involves a specimen from a patient who tests positive. Zupan said this can take up to a few weeks to produce definitive results.
Zupan stresses that the most effective ways to curb the spread of the delta variant is continuing to wear masks in public and getting vaccinated. Although people previously infected have built up antibodies to protect them, he said there isn’t much natural immunity to the new strain.
“Even (if) you’ve had COVID you can get the delta variant,” he said.
In Rock County, 59% of eligible residents have received one dose of the vaccine and 57.9% are fully vaccinated. The county falls short of the 70% mark some experts believe provides herd immunity.
Neighboring counties in southern Wisconsin also report low vaccination rates.
In Green County, 53.9% of eligible residents having received one shot and 51.9% fully vaccinated. Walworth County lags behind both with 43.9% of its eligible residents having one shot and 41.4% fully vaccinated.
Since Rock County’s vaccination rates are still relatively low, the health department is employing a multipronged approach to get more people to get shots. Some of the bigger barriers residents face is a lack of access to vaccination sites and access to reliable information.
In addition to working with local schools and other partners to host vaccination clinics, the county health department set up a vaccination site at the recent Rock County 4-H Fair.
To combat the abundance of misinformation and allay reservations, the department is also working on informing the public of the efficacy and benefits of vaccines. They are also referring people to rockcountyshot.com, which allows users to find resources and locate vaccination sites.
Ultimately, Zupan said vaccine-hesitant people ought to have conversations with their health care providers.
“I think people’s doctors are going to be the best source of information in terms of addressing people’s fears and concerns about the vaccine,” he said.
Thanks to a committed team of 32 volunteers, the campfires are still burning at Camp Indian Trails, 5801 N. River Road, for 330 Cub Scouts this summer.
Despite hardships stemming from COVID-19 and Boy Scouts of America’s financial obligations as part of a settlement with abuse survivors, volunteers have stepped forward to offer alien invasion-themed summer camps with dens named “Area 51” and “The Space Invaders.”
“One parent phoned in asking for ‘Alien Hall’ when it’s Allen Hall,” Indian Trails District Director Andrew Olsen said.
Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops have been under increasing financial pressure. Boy Scouts of America reached an $850 million settlement with more than 60,000 victims suing over sex abuse over several decades. The organization began seeking bankruptcy protection in February 2020 to try to reach resolution of claims and create a compensation fund for victims, The Associated Press has reported.
The settlement has also affected local troops, compounding the lack of fundraising during the pandemic year and interruption of activities. Despite these challenges, those who either grew up in Scouts or saw children benefit from the organization sprung to action to resurrect the camp.
After camps were canceled, volunteers including camp directors Sharon Mellom and Mike Cole, Indian Trails District Chair Kelly Blada, Aaron Teche, and others started planning in March and had a full lineup of archery, bottle-rocket launching, nature programming and more by the summer’s start. Poisonous plants were to be identified along with deer and turkey tracks.
Because aquatic programming is expensive, the group didn’t use the pool but is hoping to return to splashing in the future.
Roxanne Klingenmeyer, a mother of scouts, was thrilled with the offerings.
“We love it. The kids get to do fun stuff, and they love archery. This year staff are volunteers. This wouldn’t have happened without them,” Klingenmeyer said.
The volunteers didn’t feel too burdened with their duties, which range from kitchen tasks and restroom cleanup to archery, arts and crafts, and more.
“It’s such a blast, and it’s so much fun,” Mellom said. “You have all these activities and adventures, and you get to share it with them.”
While in typical years Camp Indian Trails serves upwards of 600 Cub Scouts with 15 to 18 paid staff, the number of available staff members this summer dropped to two. Cub Scouts are for those in elementary school grades while older kids can camp as part of Boy Scouts at a site in Mauston.
The responsibilities of running camp didn’t seem to deter the volunteers, who used vacation time from work to devote themselves to activities.
“A volunteer staff is more challenging, but it is also more engaging. It created a lot of buy-in,” Cole said.
Cole, who mows the 170-acre property, helps fix things and organizes activities, used the bulk of his vacation time this summer on camp. An auto technician in his day job, Cole is a lifelong scouter who is getting help from his wife and 17-year-old son. Cole said the activities provide bonding experiences for families and lifelong memories for scouters.
Blada, who does pharmaceutical research by day, said she saw her kids go through the program. She is impressed with how it introduces children to careers and builds character. She said a bug specialist and a Dane County Sheriff’s deputy with a police dog were coming to present this week. There were plans underway for a campfire program toward the end of the summer and other surprises.
“The enthusiasm has been encouraging, and it’s helpful to know we are providing what we can to keep youth growing and healthy and building people of good citizenship and character,” Mellom said.
Glenn E. Hildebrandt
Donna J. Hiss
Linda “Pat” Lantta
Lois A. Maxted
Arlene Ruth Rowley
So far, Rock County has not seen a catastrophic COVID-19 infection outbreak—at least not one that overwhelmed hospitals and required emergency pop-up medical tents to house overflow patients.
That might make the city of Janesville’s 2020 purchase of two hospital surge shelter sets a $600,000 gamble that never paid off.
Yet as public health officials report that Rock County communities continue to sink deeper into a growing flood of new COVID-19 infections, one city official said he doesn’t regret his support last year for buying two pricey tent systems to alleviate possible emergency room surges the pandemic could have brought to Mercyhealth and St. Mary’s hospitals in Janesville.
Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes told The Gazette that the city intends to continue to own and keep two five-cell tent sets that can be used for surges in medical cases or other purposes. Rhodes recommended buying the tents last year. He said the intent was to give both Janesville hospitals space for an additional 50 beds if a spike in COVID-19 cases overwhelmed one or both the hospital’s emergency and intensive-care units and could one day be used for such a purpose.
“We don’t have a huge, built-in surge capacity here. Not a lot of hospitals anywhere have a huge surge capacity in the number of 50 beds. It’s very much more limited than that,” Rhodes said.
His comments come as Rock County this week edged into the highest category state and federal health authorities use to characterize the probable COVID-19 infection rate. State Department of Health Services data shows the county has seen a significant uptick in the past few weeks in likely cases of COVID-19, a trend officials say is likely tied to a rise in the delta variant.
The state data shows Rock County has seen more than a doubling of COVID-19 cases per week since mid-July, and last week, the county recommended people return to wearing masks inside public spaces.
Nearly 58% of eligible residents in the county are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The county has seen a noticeable uptick in the number of people now hospitalized with COVID-19 infection significant, with the number rising from nine to 19 over the past few weeks.
This week marks the highest number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 since May, and the state has upgraded Rock County’s status to “high” and growing in both overall cases and COVID-19-like symptoms reported to doctors.
The city since buying the tents last year has constructed and field-tested the tents, but they’ve been on standby since the city deployed them a handful of times last year to provide base operations for testing officials and the U.S. Army National Guard at mobile COVID-19 testing sites in Rock County.
Rhodes said the tents are being stored in canvas and metal containers at a “city location” and are ready for use if necessary.
Rhodes said the two tent sets—each a five-cell, walled system designed with enough space to socially distance or isolate COVID-19 patients and medical staff—could serve in myriad other types of local emergency responses.
Earlier this week, a resident at a local listening session U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil held here complained in a public comment about the city buying $600,000 in hospital surge tents during the COVID-19 lockdown last year that it ultimately has not used.
Rhodes, who plans to leave the Janesville Fire Department later this month to take a new job in his home state of Missouri, has a background in local emergency management. He said he believes the city made the right choice to buy surge shelters, even if there hasn’t been a surge in people hospitalized with COVID-19 that would necessitate the shelters’ use at local hospitals.
“If somebody says we never needed the tents, they’re wrong. We did need them, because it (COVID-19) was coming. And guess what? We’re still in the middle of this (pandemic),” Rhodes said. “We still need to have the tents, we need to have them on the ready. And now, we’re always going to have them.”
Rhodes said the city would have no reason to return the equipment because it has already been paid for through a federal reimbursement for COVID-19 preparedness. Retaining the equipment gives the city flexibility to run various emergency operations—pandemic related or non-pandemic related, Rhodes said.
Rhodes offered other hypothetical uses for such tent equipment, including the threat of an occasional Wisconsin ice storm that can temporarily knock out local power—including to facilities with vulnerable populations such as nursing homes.
“The tent packages include air conditioning, or we can (use the packages to) heat the wing of the nursing home or provide them with power. Then those people don’t have to evacuate,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes said in a widespread regional disaster or during a statewide disease outbreak, cities might not be able to purely rely on state or federal equipment such as surge tents to show up where or when they’re needed.