Oshkosh, Neenah areas see huge COVID-19 case surge

Sophia Voight, Co-News Editor

The Oshkosh-Neenah area is experiencing the second-fastest COVID-19 case surge in the nation, according to the New York Times, with 1,424 active cases in Winnebago County as of Tuesday.

In addition, UW Oshkosh has the second-highest number of cases among universities in the state with 461 active cases as of Monday. However, the number of active cases at UWO declined to 395 on Tuesday, according to the university’s COVID dashboard.

The Winnebago County Health Department (WCHD) reported a “significant uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in our community” as the county experienced a 106% increase in positive cases last week.

The rapid acceleration of cases in the county is primarily driven by young adults, ages 18-24, in households, workplaces and educational settings, according to the WCHD weekly COVID data summary.

The report stated 2.5% of ages 18-24 tested positive over the past two weeks in the county. The report noted that this is likely a “significant underestimate of the true percentage of this age group currently infected.

“Cases will continue to rise at a very rapid rate,” the WCHD report said. “If you do not practice physical distancing, you risk infecting others at home, work and in the community that may have serious or life-threatening consequences.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations are at the highest level to date in the county, according to WCHD, with 81 patients hospitalized as of Sept. 23, which is five times higher than in August.

The UWO COVID-19 dashboard reported a 4.9% positivity rate Sept. 28, with 25 positive cases. The university has had a total of 567 positive cases, or 10.3%, since testing began Sept. 2.

As of 3 p.m., the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 2,367 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday for a nearly 22% positivity rate. In addition, the department reported 17 more deaths in the state, bringing the total to 1,300.

UWO closed all in-person dining areas Sept. 24 for the next two weeks in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

The university also increased testing, having all residence hall students receive testing every other week, Chancellor Andrew Leavitt announced in a campus-wide email last week.

However, Interim Vice Chancellor and Dean of Students Art Munin stated in an updated email on Sept. 25 that COVID tests will be administered to students living in dorms weekly, rather than every other week.

Leavitt said the university is not currently taking steps to move all classes online as other UW colleges have been doing.

“Our data and contact tracing have led us to believe the spread of COVID-19 is not taking place in the classroom, where we see students, faculty and staff abiding by mask requirements, physical distancing and disinfection practices,” he said.

Leavitt also said the virus is continuing to spread due to students going to house parties and hanging out in large groups.

“Most students actually are taking necessary steps to protect their health and others,” he said. “But a small segment of students are not. Some are even knowingly putting others at risk.”

Leavitt said the university has increased sanctions against students who do not follow COVID-19 safety measures, including possible probation and suspension.

The Environmental Research and Innovation Center, or ERIC, will also begin regularly testing residence hall wastewater for evidence of COVID-19.

The ERIC lab already tests sewage at local health care facilities and will begin testing the 10 residence halls shortly, a UWO press release stated.

“Monitoring the dorm wastewater on the UW Oshkosh campus for the presence of COVID-19 will assist University and Oshkosh area health officials in public health decision making, as COVID-19 can be shed in the feces of both symptomatic and asymptomatic people,” ERIC manager Carmen Thiel said.

ERIC director Greg Kleinheinz said the lab will run tests up to twice a week to get a general idea of how much COVID-19 is in each hall.

Kleinheinz said the tests won’t tell how many students in the hall have COVID-19, but they will be able to indicate if there is a spike in cases in a residence hall.

WCHD recommends that people “just stay home” and avoid any unnecessary travel that puts you in contact with people you don’t live with.

“This uncontrolled spread has resulted in the closing of Oshkosh schools and continues to threaten the ability of other schools and businesses to remain open,” the WCHD report said.

UWO students and employees who have been exposed to the virus or are experiencing symptoms can get tested at Albee Hall by appointment through the MyPrevea app. Appointments are available Monday through Friday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. There are no Saturday appointments.

Sunnyview Expo Center in Oshkosh is also running a regional COVID-19 testing site available to any Wisconsin resident above the age of 5.