Evers ‘looking at every possible avenue’ to extend mask requirement

DHS says latest COVID-19 spike is concentrated in young adults, mainly on college campuses

Gov. Tony Evers
Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a media briefing about the spread of COVID-19. (Screen shot from WisconsinEye)

With just two weeks until the statewide mask order to curb the spread of COVID-19 expires, Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday his administration is “looking at every possible avenue to see if there’s a way to extend it.”

He also made it clear that he doesn’t expect Republican leaders in the state Legislature to put their imprimatur on the order that took effect Aug. 1.

“I have not reached out recently,” Evers said at an online media briefing with officials from the state Department of Health Services (DHS). “They have made it very clear in the past that they had no interest in pursuing any kind of restrictions in the state of Wisconsin.”

Despite that, requiring everyone in the state to wear masks is “an important piece of the puzzle to mitigate the transmission of this virus,” he said. “So we’re working on this every day, seeing if we can come up with a solution.”

Six months after the state began taking measures to try to suppress the COVID-19 pandemic, infections are now spiking again. As of mid-afternoon on Tuesday, the official DHS count of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state stood at 92,304, with 1,220 deaths.

A campus COVID connection

The latest upsurge in cases is primarily among people 18 to 24 years old, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer in the DHS bureau of communicable diseases, while “all other age groups have actually gone down in terms of cases per week.” And the leading reason for the surge, he added, has been young people gathering on college and university campuses without taking appropriate precautions.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer with the Dept. of Health Services and UW Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine. (Photo: UW-Madison faculty)
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer with the Dept. of Health Services and UW Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine. (Photo: UW-Madison faculty)

Throughout the pandemic, “dormitory settings have been some of the highest risk activities” for spreading the virus, he said. “I do believe residence halls on campuses have contributed in a major way to our increase in cases.”

Socializing in restaurants and bars off campus “without masks [is] an important driver,” he added. “I think those are probably the two biggest reasons that that age group seems to be having the highest transmission right now.”

That extends to an increase in Brown County, where in the spring a surge in cases was attributed to a preponderance of meatpacking plants there with employees working in very close quarters, but where college students are now the biggest spreader, Westergaard said.

With the latest surge, Evers and Andrea Palm, the DHS secretary-designee, on Tuesday renewed their calls for state residents to stick to measures intended to keep people safer, from maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from anyone not in their immediate household and avoiding large gatherings to frequent handwashing and wearing masks in public.

“At one point Wisconsin was in a pretty good place,” Evers said. “That is no longer the case. We must double down on our efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. In the days and weeks ahead, and as we spend more time indoors, please be extra cautious and take the necessary precautions  for you and your family. I know we all want to get back to normal, but we will continue to see increase in cases until folks decide to take this seriously.”

As flu season nears, said Palm, flu vaccines are especially important.

“The flu shot does not protect you from COVID-19,” Palm said. But by protecting people from the flu, the vaccine protects hospital capacity for patients with COVID-19 and medical testing capacity for the virus that causes it.

Besides recent increases again in the number of cases, there’s also been an upswing in the percentage of confirmed cases compared with the total number of tests being given.

Tracing the spread of the disease through the contacts of people who are confirmed positive with COVID-19, as well as strict isolation of people exposed or potentially exposed and quarantine for people who have been infected, are all needed to reduce the spread, said Westergaard.

The percentage of confirmed cases is likely to come down if more people are tested as well. Currently, the number of tests each day may be as low as 25% of the state’s testing capacity.

Palm said the reasons that so few people are seeking COVID-19 tests compared to the number of people who could be tested each day probably include “pandemic fatigue,” with people less focused on the reality of the disease, as well as continued concern about possible shortage of testing supplies.

“What we know is that we have the capacity to test everyone who needs a test,” she said — not just people with symptoms, but those who have been in close contact with a person who has tested positive. “If you need a test, please go get tested.”

Risks at any age

While infections have surged in the youngest adult age group, Wisconsin has not yet seen any deaths in people under 20, Westergaard said. Hospitalization rates have been low as well: At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he said, with more than 1,500 positive COVID-19 tests, the number of people hospitalized has been in the low single digits.

A report in August from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stating that only 6% of people with COVID-19 did not have other, complicating medical conditions, or comorbidities, does not mean that the  young and healthy have no risk of dying, he added.

“The other thing to pay attention to is that there are severe adverse and potentially long lasting outcomes of this infection other than death” — including chronic neurological damage and damage to the heart and circulatory system, said Westergaard. “The risk varies quite a bit, but there is no age group in the country or in the world that has not had a number of deaths.”

Even if younger people are getting the illness more frequently and experiencing fewer severe effects, he added, it’s important to prevent transmission within that group and also to shield older, more vulnerable people.

“Now is the time we really need to pay attention to protecting older and vulnerable patients,” he said, “so that the transmission doesn’t reach those who are at high risk of severe disease.”

The mask order is currently the only statewide requirement to offer that kind of protection, and it is the subject of a lawsuit that would cancel the emergency order Evers announced in late July of which the mask order is a part.

“Our ability to act and react was limited by the Republicans and their allies on the Supreme Court back in May,” Evers said Tuesday, referring to the court’s 4-3 ruling that threw out the statewide Safer at Home order May 13 after he was sued by the Republican leadership in the state Legislature.

“And as a result of that, we were severely limited as to what we can do — and now we’re seeing that even counties are severely limited to what they can do,” he continued, alluding to last week’s preliminary injunction from the high court that blocked Dane County from limiting in-person school to grades K-2 and special education students.

Those rulings left public health authorities and concerned citizens to rely on the powers of persuasion more than the power of government.

Logo for DHS “You Stop the Spread” publicity campaign.

Last week the Wisconsin Hospital Association and other business groups teamed up in an ad campaign telling people to stick with preventive measures. And DHS announced a campaign of its own, promoted on the DHS website, to encourage such practices.

Palm said the agency is soliciting participation from the general public — asking people to take pictures of themselves wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, or taking other actions that promote safety from the virus — then post the images on social media along with an explanation of their reasons for doing so.

“Maybe you wear a mask because you want the small businesses in your town to thrive, or to protect your grandmother, or so, in the near future, your book club can reconvene or your family can have their reunion next summer — or just so we can have a better 2021,” Palm said. “Whatever the reason, share your story and use the hashtag, #YouStopTheSpread.”

Mask politicization

Evers repeated his oft-expressed frustration, both at the harassment of public health officials and at how the act of wearing a mask has become polarizing in some quarters.

When a reporter asked about an outlying county where school officials have said they won’t require masks once the order expires and some health providers don’t observe the mandate now, the governor’s response was muted.

“If you’re willing to share that information with us offline, we’ll be glad to follow up with those individual schools and other places that are not compliant with the mask order,” Evers said, in a voice that sounded more like a disappointed grandparent than a hard-charging drill sergeant.

“It’s important [that] we talk about it every single day, and we’ll continue talking about it,” he said. “Unfortunately, it has become a political issue,” he continued, recalling images of “Republican fundraisers online where there isn’t a person in a crowded room wearing a mask.”

When President Donald Trump visits Wisconsin this week, “I anticipate there will be lots of people without a mask. He will not be wearing a mask,” Evers said. “He should wear a mask.”

In other developments from Tuesday’s briefing:

  • Evers reiterated concern that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has said it will begin limiting its coverage for state personal protective equipment (PPE) to first responders, and stop covering the cost of PPE supplies for schools.

“We are trying to convince FEMA to change their position,” he said — and if it doesn’t, “I’m not sure where the funding is going to come from [but] we will certainly need to protect people.”

  •  Evers and Palm urged state residents who have lost health coverage this year because of the pandemic to take part in a new open enrollment available under the Affordable Care Act at the website healthcare.gov. A free state healthcare referral site, WisCovered.com, also is available to help guide people looking for coverage.
Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.