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Rural communities preparing for pandemic to spread

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BARABOO (WKOW) -- This week rural counties across Wisconsin confirmed their first few cases of COVID-19 and local officials warn, the spread is far from over.

Sauk County Public Health Officer Tim Lawther expects cases to pick up shortly, though he hopes early adoption of social distancing strategies slows things down.

"Sauk County is no different from any other county in the country at this point," he said. "We have a growing caseload of folks with COVID-19 cases and we are absolutely sure we have community spread."

Iowa County experts echoed those concerns, though Upland Hills CEO Lisa Schendler said the Dodgeville hospital has been preparing long before seeing the county saw its first confirmed case on Monday.

"We kind of rearranged everything in the hospitals, rearranged everything in our clinic so we were very ready when this hit," she said.

As of Wednesday evening, Iowa County had three confirmed cases and Sauk County had seven. While those numbers are far lower than some of the state's metro areas, Lawther said they don't tell the whole story.

"We don't have enough testing supplies and we are absolutely sure that we have plenty of positive cases in Sauk County that are not diagnosed," he said.

Schendler said Upland Hills is facing similar shortages. She said her hospital staff members have to be strategic in who they test and how they use personal protective gear.

"We currently have enough testing kits for our staff but we can see that our orders aren't being filled as quickly as they usually are," she said.

These shortages are the reason Lawther said social distancing is particularly important for rural communities, though he understands that hits his county harder than others.

"We have fewer community partners that we can rely on to provide the services that we need in this emergency," he said.

Sauk County can't depend on nonprofit partners the way Madison and Milwaukee can, so he said county and city services have had to step up to serve the community.

Lawther said one of the biggest challenges they've faced so far has been about helping people who don't have Internet access in their homes.

He said the county has worked with area school districts to deliver educational material and, in some cases, meals to students out of school.

Still, he said there's no easy fix. Social distancing is difficult but Lawther said it's the only way to ensure hospitals will be able to keep up with the spread of the virus.

"Our goal is to limit the number of people who get that illness at one time and the severity of that illness at one time," he said.

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Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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