With an eye on rising case numbers, health officials urge continued caution

By: - April 2, 2021 4:02 pm
Janel Heinrich

Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County, speaks during a virtual news conference Friday. (Screen capture | Zoom)

With the onset of spring weather and no statewide mask order now in place, public health officials are reiterating the importance of adhering to behaviors that will prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

On Friday, Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) announced that it was relaxing some public health restrictions, including ending an outdoor mask mandate, while continuing to require face coverings indoors. 

Elsewhere, local health officials have been adjusting in response to Wednesday’s state Supreme Court ruling that removed Wisconsin’s statewide mask order. On Thursday, Marathon County’s health department issued an advisory calling on everyone 5 or older to wear face masks indoors or in enclosed spaces with people who aren’t members of their immediate household. 

“Wearing a mask, even after you are vaccinated, is an important part of disease prevention,” the Marathon County advisory states.

Along with admonitions to continue following safety measures, however, new cases of coronavirus infection continue to increase statewide.

In addition, the state has now logged its third known death of a person under the age of 19 in connection with COVID-19. A 14-year-old Milwaukee boy died Thursday after first testing positive for the virus in November 2020. 

The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office concluded that the death of the boy, who had leukemia and underwent a bone marrow transplant in 2019, was due to “complications of infection with novel Coronavirus,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. There have been two previous COVID-19-related deaths for people under 19 years old in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Health Services (DHS).

To date none of the COVID-19 vaccines approved in the U.S. have been authorized for people under 16. A DHS spokeswoman said Friday that authorization must come from the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but there is no timetable for that decision.

This week Pfizer reported that preliminary data from a trial in children 12 to 15 showed that none of those who had received the actual vaccine became infected with the virus, according to the AP.

That finding raises hope that a vaccine could become available for people under 16 sometime before late summer, Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County, said Friday. 

“We will continue to work in partnership with all the folks who are also providing vaccines and make sure that it’s accessible to that age group when it’s available, because we will not likely achieve herd immunity until we have the ability to have our younger population vaccinated,” Heinrich said. 

Everyone 16 or older in Wisconsin becomes eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine starting Monday, April 5.

Dane County’s newest order, which takes effect Wednesday, April 7, removes limits on outdoor gathering sizes, but states the number must be low enough so people can stand at least six feet apart at all times. While masks outdoors are optional, “we strongly recommend it,” Heinrich said at a news conference. “But we also recognize that since the risk is lower, we have removed that as a requirement.”

The new order allows salad bars, buffets and other self-service food venues to resume operation. It permits saunas and steam rooms to reopen, but the users at any particular time must be from the same household. 

Even as Dane County is easing some of its restrictions, Heinrich emphasized the need for continued caution. 

“Dane County is making progress,” she said. “On the other hand, other places in the country are experiencing the effects of variants and are seeing increases in COVID-19 cases. We are closely watching these trends in both data both locally and nationally, in case the presence of variants begins to affect us here.”

The county’s hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 and the rate of positive tests for the virus are all well below their peak levels last year, she added. At the same time, she added, “We are seeing cases and hospitalization stall, instead of decrease, and we are seeing little uptick in people with COVID in the ICU [intensive care unit].”

Statewide the number of new daily confirmed COVID-19 cases and the percentage of tests that are positive for the virus are increasing. On Friday, DHS reported 875 new confirmed cases. The number of daily positive tests in the state, averaged over the last 7 days, is now up to 3%, continuing an upward trajectory that began March 12.

Mindful of the continuing spread of the virus as well as increasing numbers of people who have been vaccinated, DHS on Friday announced it had updated its website of guidance on community safety to include recommendations for people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, as well as those who haven’t yet received the vaccine.

The DHS guidance urges people to continue limiting gatherings, while encouraging activities outdoors. It calls for continued mask-wearing and physical distancing and urges people to be vaccinated when they are able.

The new guidance was issued as many in the state were preparing for the Easter holiday weekend and likely gatherings.

“I’m always concerned that if folks don’t follow the appropriate mitigation and strong prevention practices, we are going to be at risk of increased transmission throughout our community, and we’ll see more people sick,” Heinrich told reporters Friday. To head off that risk, she urged people, even if they are vaccinated, to continue masking when they are with unvaccinated people, especially those who are at high risk for the virus or for poor outcomes from the virus.

“And take your gatherings outside — that is the best place to have them,” Heinrich said.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and 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.

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