Northern Wisconsin counties to seasonal residents: Stay away
SUPERIOR, Wis. — Rural northern Wisconsin counties have issued travel advisories to seasonal and second homeowners, asking they stay in their primary homes amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Florence County officials bluntly stated Wednesday, “If you have a seasonal or second home in Florence County, due to our very limited health care infrastructure, please do not visit us now.”
Anyone who already has traveled to Florence County should self-isolate for 14 days, according to the advisory sent out by Annette Seibold, the county’s health officer and director.
“Florence County has a high populations of older adults,” the advisory explained. “This population is at the highest risk of COVID-19; it is our priority to keep our older residents healthy and safe.”
In taking the action, Florence joins Vilas, Sawyer, Ashland, Bayfield and Door counties in urging people remain at their winter homes to avoid potentially spreading COVID-19, even as Gov. Tony Evers issued a “stay-at-home” order Tuesday, plus a travel ban, effective Wednesday morning.
The plea not to go north came as the state saw community spread of COVID-19 in Brown, Columbia, Dane, Fond du Lac, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Walworth and Waukesha counties. That means some people who have been infected with the virus are not sure how or where they became infected.
The Vilas County Public Health Department on Wednesday also reported its first COVID-19 case, a 65-year-old male with a recent out-of-state travel history who was hospitalized in stable condition.
Bayfield County health director Sara Wartman said the advisory is a warning as well to people that they might not receive the same level of care that’s provided by health systems in larger cities. The county had its first and only case of COVID-19 confirmed March 19.
“For people who rush to this area because they think it’s safer, I feel I owe it to them to let them know that our health care system may not be able to respond to that need,” Wartman said. “And, one of the best things that people really can do right now is to just stay home.”
Bayfield County Board Supervisor Fred Strand said the county and Red Cliff tribe have limited staff and health care facilities.
“While we have some medical facilities in the county, many of our county residents need to go outside of the county for medical services or choose to do (so whether it) be Ashland, Hayward, Superior, Duluth or further,” said Strand, who is also a member of the county’s health board.
Wartman said her department has two nurses, and the situation has been overwhelming.
“I’ve called in non-nursing staff to help in positions that we need assistance with for monitoring travelers and for monitoring close contact of confirmed COVID-19 cases,” she said. “And I’m calling in non-health department employees to help us with work in response to this pandemic. So we’re trying our best to hold our own, but we are doing it all remotely except for one person who is in the office basically checking temperatures.”
Strand said this is the time of year when many seasonal residents begin to return. He said 1 in 5 people are employed in the tourism and recreation business in the county.
“That’s going to hurt a lot, and we regret not having them here and the money they’ll spend,” Strand said. “But a pound of prevention is worth a ton of cure.”
He said they’re worried about health care workers and emergency services personnel who may become exposed through their work and be unavailable to respond.
On its website, Vilas County public health officials wrote the advisory was issued in part because of limited medical facilities and its reliance on volunteer emergency services.
“Our broadband infrastructure is limited,” officials wrote. “And with students, including kids home from college, doing online classes, as well as workers that reside in the county that are required to work from home, this resource is/will be reaching maximum capacity.”
Vilas County also noted its stores don’t have the inventory or staffing to accommodate increased demand right now.
So far, there are no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Florence, Sawyer, Ashland and Door counties. Bayfield County’s case was a Bayfield High School student who tested positive after traveling to an area experiencing community spread of the virus.
The high population of older residents in the northern counties also played a role in their advisory urging people not to visit. According to state projections, more than half of the population in Bayfield and Vilas counties is age 55 and older.
Door County has urged visitors to stay home for the next 30 days.
“Door County has well trained and capable medical personnel, but staffing is limited and stretched thin during this emergency,” county officials said in a news release. “The county makes this statement in hopes of limiting the demands placed on local hospitals, emergency personnel, nurses and doctors.”
The county asked hotels and lodges to consider canceling reservations and refrain from taking new ones to discourage travel to the area.
But in Marinette County, county administrator John Lefebvre said crowds at grocery stores over the weekend resembled the height of summer’s tourism season.
He said an influx of people to the county may have its benefits. By definition, people in less dense northwoods counties are more spread out from those in urban areas and therefore may be less prone to spread the disease.
“You can enjoy the outdoors,” Lefebvre said. “You can’t go to supper clubs or bars; they’re all closed anyway.”
He said many people with cabins up north don’t heat them year-round, meaning they may not be suitable for living in right now as the state enters a stay-at-home order. In a county with a population of about 40,000, he doesn’t expect to see an influx of more than 5,000 or so, less than what it sees in summer.
WPR’s Rob Mentzer and The Daily News contributed to this report.