One year anniversary of La Crosse County’s first COVID-19 case

Published: Mar. 18, 2021 at 10:05 PM CDT
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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WEAU) - “It was a banner day, no doubt, and it was the beginning of a pretty interesting year,” said Gundersen Health System CEO Scott Rathgaber.

March 18, 2020-- the first case of COVID-19 was found in La Crosse County.

“One year ago, it was pretty emotional,” Shelly Niedfeldt, a Gundersen Health System RN said. “I was called by my leader to assist in the testing and I think as nurses we are always there. We are ready to respond to duty-- that’s our calling.”

Ready to respond to a world of unknowns, stricken by fear of what the virus had already done in other communities.

Health systems and health departments, typically in the background were now in the spotlight.

“My leader and I and one of our quality nurses and one of our educators were sitting there and we cried because we knew that was our time, our moment to prepare for what was to come, so that we could be strong for our team the next day,” Niedfeldt added.

Strong despite the worry and concerns. Prepared to support people thinking they may have COVID-19.

“You went to school and you knew that you were going to encounter illnesses, and diseases -- all that kind of stuff,” explained Amelia Vruble, a Mayo Clinic RN. “However, you are there as a nurse to try and comfort the patient.”

A year later that first case has morphed into more than 12,000.

When nurse Shelly Niedfeldt reflects back on those first few affected, she says a covid diagnosis was almost like having a scarlet letter.

“When we would call patients when they were positive, you would hear them in shock,” said Niedfeldt. “You would hear them crying saying ‘oh my gosh.. what did I do?’ They almost felt awful that it occurred and ‘how did this happen? I was so careful’ and you could hear the pain in their voice.”

As testing began, Gundersen CEO Scott Rathgaber thought it would be temporary.

“I really think we were talking a matter of months--whether it was three months, six months on the offset, was kind of what I was thinking,” Dr. Rathgaber added.

Public Health Educator Rachel King says the La Crosse County Health Department tries to stay positive, but last fall it was hard.

As college students returned to the city, outbreaks started in nursing homes.

“I would say that journey was one of the hardest for us as a team because we knew there wasn’t a whole lot we could do at that point,” King reflected. “When there is an outbreak in a long-term care facility, it’s hard to contain.”

Only one death had been attributed to covid by then -- that quickly changed.

“We have 80 deaths total throughout the pandemic in La Crosse County just due to COVID. It’s hit our community hard,” King explained.

Additional contact tracers were brought onboard. It was too late -- the demand created by the surge was too high.

“In December, we saw some cases where there were nearly 300 a day and that was really hard for our team to know that we were never going to be able to reach everybody in a really quick amount of time,” said King.

One year and 65,000 tests later, there is hope in the form of COVID-19 vaccines.

“There was almost no way to predict that we would have a vaccine this quickly. It had never happened in the history of human medicine,” Dr. Rathgaber said.

From swabbing patients filled with fear to vaccinating eager Wisconsinites feeling a sense of relief.

“It was one of the most amazing experiences that I have had in my healthcare career,” Niedfeldt said of giving the vaccine to patients.

365 days later, vaccine administration is on the rise while cases, hospitalizations, and covid-related deaths are on the decline.

“In the worst of times, you do find the best in people,” Niedfeldt explained.

“I will have great memories from this time on how the community responded to our pleas and the pleas across the state,” added Dr. Rathgaber.

Doctors remind the community to stick with precautions, so the pandemic can be a thing of the past.

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