No life has gone untouched by COVID-19 this year. Since 2020, our communities have been battling a pandemic and all the challenges that come with it. Schools, counties and municipalities have faced difficult decisions based on changing numbers and public input. As St. Croix County Public Health administered its first vaccines in January 2021, students began returning to in person learning.
In November, Hudson schools saw another surge in COVID-19 cases, including 17 new cases reported over one weekend.
“We are up to about 298 cases in the school district since the start of the school year,” Superintendent Nick Ouellette said. “We haven’t had hospitalizations or deaths.”
The 298 cases included about 30 teachers and staff.
“The vast majority of them have been vaccinated,” he said.
Hudson Prairie Elementary School has had 41 cases this year through mid-November.
“I think the reason we are seeing more cases at the elementary level than anything is because it is the last group that’s not vaccinated,” Ouellete said.
The surge had some of the elementary schools requiring masks for students and staff.
The Hudson school district went with a masking matrix to determine when students were required to wear masks in the school buildings. The matrix was adapted at the start of the school year in August.
All district schools started with masks recommended but not required. This was a change from when the school year wound down in May. At the time, masks were required at all schools.
Like the previous school year’s closure matrix, Ouellette said the masking matrix is the administration’s best look at the parameters and what they think is reasonable.
The number of cases within the district boundary comes from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website, which adjusts for a rate per 100,000 population. The numbers are the same as what was used last year, but adjusted to reflect that the state now uses seven-day cumulative totals rather than seven-day averages, Ouellette said.
The matrix was not built to make masks optional all year or required all year, Ouellette said.
The University of Wisconsin-River Falls was not one to shy away from advancing safety measures throughout the year. The Protect the Nest campaign, though not required, requests that everyone at UW-River Falls get the COVID-19 vaccine to keep the campus and community safe. Under the “70 for 70” campaign, vaccinated students who attend universities in the UW System, except for UW-Madison, that achieve at least 70% vaccination rates will be eligible for one of 70 scholarships valued at $7,000 each.
UW-River Falls achieved this benchmark in October 2021. They continue to uphold a mask mandate as well as mandatory testing for unvaccinated members of the University community.
The School District of River Falls, like many districts in the area, has battled the question – to mask or not to mask? Ultimately, they went back and forth throughout the year.
The district has been using the Wildcat Roadmap 2.1 for COVID-19 mitigation and prevention guidelines throughout the 2021-2022 school year. Though the district voted first to make masks optional this school year, they quickly revoked that decision, voting to begin the school year with masks, but without close contact quarantine requirements.
The mask requirement remained the rest of 2021.
On Nov. 12, the school district made the call to cancel two days prior to the scheduled Thanksgiving break. Students and staff did not have class Nov. 22-23 in addition to the rest of the week, as a result of increasing COVID-19 cases.
January 11, 2021
Westfields Hospital Dr. Cliff Tenner laid out the dilemma facing health care professionals entering year two of COVID. He told members of the New Richmond City Council that the stigma associated with having COVID and the subsequent quarantine protocols of having to miss work, causing fellow workers or family members to miss work or school was stopping people from getting tested.
As a consequence of the reluctance to get tested, health officials could only speculate as to how many people were actually infected and continuing to spread the virus.
“I’ve seen so many people at Westfields who don’t want to get tested. By all accounts, they probably have COVID but refuse to get tested. There are about 7,000 cases to date in St. Croix County. I would be shocked if it wasn’t a total of 14,000. Thera are about 90,000 people in the county. We don’t know the number of people who are asymptomatic, but figure roughly 15,000 people have had it, that works out to about 1 in 6 people. We’re still very susceptible to COVID at this time until we get vaccines. If we were to abandon our masks, it would be a disaster,” Tenner said.
The goal locally mirrored the national effort to begin vaccinating essential workers and the elderly as soon as the vaccines became available in early March.
The city revised its COVID Action Plan in February, keeping in place the standard precautions and encouraging but not requiring vaccines.
Council members voted to cancel the St. Patrick’s Day Parade for the second year in a row, but with vaccinations on the rise, tentatively approved Fun Fest for a new downtown location in July with safety measures in place.
Informed by a survey of students, staff and parents in which 206 respondents (36%) voted to continue a mask mandate while 372 respondents (65%) opposed continuing a mask mandate,
the New Richmond School Board at its May 12 meeting voted to make masks optional on school property beginning with the Summer Stretch starting June 7. Their vote did not stop a group of residents from protesting at the May 17 meeting.
At the Civic Center, fully vaccinated staff were no longer required to social distance or wear masks unless requested to do so by visitors.
In June, the School Board recommended not offering a remote virtual learning option for students for the 2020-2021 school year.
By September, another surge in infections caused by the delta variant saw masks reinstated at the public library and the Civic Center whether staff were vaccinated or not. For the public, masks again were recommended but not required.
On Nov. 12, the School District partnered with St. Croix County Health to sponsor a vaccination clinic for students ages 5-11 at the New Richmond Middle School. More than 100 students took advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated.
In November, in the face of dramatically increasing COVID cases in all of its buildings, the New Richmond School District extended its Thanksgiving break in hopes that the surge would moderate and to give students, staff and families a respite physically and emotionally.
On December 1, the School District announced that it would be partnering with the state of Wisconsin and the COVID clinic to offer a free testing clinic available to students and their family members, staff and any other people associated with the school district.
The walk-in clinic will offer both the PCR and Antigen Rapid test.
In his update to ouncil members at their Dec. 13 meeting, New Richmond City Administrator Noah Wiedenfeld recognized the pandemic is far from over.
“We continue to see a significant number of positive COVID-19 cases in St. Croix County, which had the highest transmission rate in the state in the month of November. The table below shows the number of positive cases in St. Croix County per month for the past five months. As a staff, we continue to work through positive cases and incidents of close contacts/exposures. The Civic Center and Friday Memorial Library remain open to the public.”
Cases by month: July 95; August 635; Sept. 1, 268; Oct. 1,465; Nov. 2,707.
St. Croix County
COVID-19 has come in many forms – or rather variants. First identified in India in late 2020, the delta variant had been 99% percent of cases in the United States this year. Come late 2021, omicron crossed the border into Wisconsin, catapulting a resurgence of encouragement to receive the vaccine and booster.
The year began with widespread administration of the COVID-19 vaccine to those 18 and older. Since then, children age 5 and older became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and the booster was made available for those 16 and older.
In April 2021, the county was ranked at a very high transmission rate with an average of 29 new cases a day.
“With the recent increase in COVID-19 cases in the county and variants spreading throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota, testing is even more important,” the release said. “If you are experiencing symptoms or have been in close contact with someone who has or recently had COVID-19, please use the testing resources available to you. Testing informs us if we have the virus and to take the proper safety measures to take care of ourselves and avoid spreading it to others.”
To track the spread, the county opened free drive-through COVID-19 testing in Hudson starting April 15. St. Croix County partnered with the Wisconsin Army National Guard to administer tests at the St. Croix County Highway Shop April 15 through May 27.
Testing was available for anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 or had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Individuals remained in their vehicles during the test.
At the end of 2021, St. Croix County is averaging 73 new cases per day and 57.5% of the population is fully vaccinated. Since March 2020, there have been 99 deaths in the county due to COVID-19.