Virus Spreads On Washington Island

It took a while to get there, but a COVID-19 surge has hit Washington Island, causing the town’s officials to scale back services, the school district to switch to remote learning and residents to take extra precautions. 

“Certainly from last March until into the middle of December, we were extremely fortunate,” said Town of Washington Chair Richard Tobey. 

Then in mid-December, the island’s positive test percentages began to climb. 

“It was a real game-changer for us on the island,” Tobey said. 

As of Dec. 28, 33 Washington Island residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since testing began in March, according to information from the Wisconsin Department of Human Services. As of Jan. 5, that number had climbed to 53 residents among a year-round population that numbers about 718. Two of those who contracted COVID-19 have died from the disease, bringing the virus’s harshest reality into focus.

“We grieve for those who have passed away and those that have been sickened from this virus,” said Hans Lux Jr., Town of Washington supervisor. “We need to keep our employees and the community as safe as possible.”

Half of the town’s 10 employees have tested positive, with other tests pending, Lux said. 

“We’re still working through it all, but we’re doing fine,” Tobey said.

Although Mother Nature laid the workers low, she also gave them a break in the form of milder weather. That has eliminated the need for essential winter services while the town’s employees have waited out 14-day quarantine periods.

“The weather has been great, so we haven’t had to worry about plowing snow,” Lux said. “That has helped us tremendously to get through this.”

The town either suspended services or reduced hours and opportunities for physical interactions where town services are offered at places like its municipal office, Island Exchange/Landfill, Rec Center, and courtesy van service. Even the local police department’s two officers are handling as many calls as possible by phone. 

“Everyone’s had to change procedures and protocols,” Lux said. “What we tried to do is limit anything which upped the possibility of even casual contact to try and knock [the spread of the virus] down. That’s our whole hope: to reduce the numbers coming back positive.”  

With services suspended and community members advised to take extra precautions, the Washington Island Community Health Program (WICHP) has been filling the increased need for its volunteer errand service. A busy day for the service would generally mean two calls. On Monday, it received five calls, four of those from people who needed a grocery shopper.

“We always felt that once it hit here, we were concerned because of our population,” said Christine Anderson, WICHP’s executive director. “And the way things operate here, it would move through like wildfire.”

The nonprofit organization connects island residents with a wide range of services. These days it also provides information about COVID-19 safety measures and resources while its 40 volunteers either operate its grocery-shopping and errand-running service, or keep in regular phone contact with homebound residents.

As with so many other communities, Washington Island has been challenged by those who believe that shutdowns and safety guidelines are overactions. Lux said he’s received some blowback about the town’s reduced and suspended services, for example, but he’s held his ground on the necessity of the measures. 

“Not everyone liked it, but if one person is saved, I have no qualms about it,” he said. 

The town board will consider which services it can safely reopen and to what extent during its Jan. 18 board meeting. 

Island School District Switches to Virtual Learning

By Craig Sterrett

The surge of COVID-19 cases on Washington Island has caused the school district to send kids home for online learning through Jan. 15. The teachers will have an in-service day on Monday, Jan. 18, so the first day students could return in person is Jan. 19.

The Washington Island School Board made the decision during a special meeting Dec. 29. 

Early in the year, the board decided that Washington Island School could handle social distancing in classrooms due to small class sizes, and so far, the school has run clean of COVID-19 illnesses, said board president Amy Jorgenson. However, the board also decided early on that it would switch to online learning if there was an outbreak, as exists currently on the island.

“We figured the responsible thing to do is to go to virtual learning,” Jorgenson said.

The school board will hold a special meeting Jan. 15 to consider whether to continue all-remote learning based on public-health statistics and Town of Washington information, according to Superintendent Michelle Kanipes.