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The changing guidance on protecting yourself and others from COVID-19 is both discouraging and confusing.
Just recently, the uber-politically correct Willy Street Co-op on the east side of Madison was a mask-free zone — a sure sign the pandemic was lifting. Now, after the entire state’s COVID activity rate suddenly was upgraded to “high” by the Department of Health Services, thanks to the super-transmissible delta variant everyone at the co-op is wearing masks again.
Stories about breakthrough infections, with vaccinated people contracting and spreading the new variant, are undermining our state’s frustratingly slow progress in getting everyone vaccinated so we can finally reach herd immunity. (And yes, the vaccine is the best protection against serious illness as well as the only path to finally ending the ever-mutating, ever-surging virus.)
It is nothing short of insane that Republicans on the Wisconsin Legislature’s rules committee picked this moment, with the virus surging and the start of school only a few weeks away, to attempt to cripple the UW System’s ability to impose common-sense public health measures and keep college campuses from turning into COVID petri dishes.
But even apart from the ongoing perversity of the GOP’s partisan efforts to hamstring Wisconsin’s pandemic response, mixed signals abound.
On Tuesday the Department of Natural Resources sent out an ebullient press release urging people to “go wild in Wisconsin!” at the Wisconsin State Fair. The fair is “the perfect place … to meet with DNR experts to learn about Wisconsin’s world-class fishing, wildlife, state parks and get the inside scoop on all things outdoor recreation,” it declared.
COVID transmission is very low outdoors — one reason camping reservations have soared during the pandemic. But the DNR booth at the state fair, with its cute “OutWiGo” theme, is indoors. Actually, it’s in a building right across from the Original Cream Puff Pavilion where, Gov. Tony Evers announced on Wednesday, fairgoers can pick up a free cream puff if they stop by the vaccination clinic at the fair to get a shot.
If I were hanging around the DNR display I would be wary of outdoor enthusiasts breathing heavily while devouring cream puffs.
We simply have not adjusted to the new reality of the pandemic’s resurgence. And no wonder: that reality is changing really fast.
At the end of July, the CDC issued new guidance, based on increased spread because of the delta variant. The agency did not recommend that all vaccinated people start wearing masks again indoors — only those living in “an area of substantial or high transmission.” At the time, that meant most communities in the Upper Midwest were exempt. But not anymore. Dane County is now a “substantial transmission” area, according to the latest CDC data.
Transmission is so high with this new variant, as Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said at a virtual news conference, there are now only two choices, “either get the vaccine or get COVID.”
And as state superintendent Jill Underly told me, “One thing people want is they want schools to be open, face to face. The vast majority of kids and parents want that. And to do that we need to kick this virus.”
That means enough people need to get the shot to get us close to herd immunity, which is impossible if our vaccination rate stays at the current 50%.
Ellen Foxman, MD, PhD, a Yale Medicine pathologist who is an expert in respiratory viruses, compares herd immunity to making the virus hit a “dead end.”
“If you are coughing and sneezing, and the droplets reach someone who is susceptible, then the virus will keep spreading,” Foxman told Yale Medicine. “But if the virus reaches someone who has immunity, it is like hitting a wall. The virus can’t go any further.”
“We need to get vaccinated as soon as we can so we can prevent the spread of COVID-19, which will also prevent the emergence of variants. It’s a race between vaccination and variants,” Foxman said in that Yale Medicine interview back in May.
Since then, the delta variant has emerged and we are moving backwards. We have to return to common sense precautions like wearing masks or we will continue to experience more variants and more backsliding.
The return to mask-wearing outdoors in cities like Madison, with its high vaccination rate, and by vaccinated shoppers at the Willy Street Co-op might do a little, but it won’t change that trajectory.
What we really need is for the “freedom” fighter vaccine and mask resistors and their enablers in the Republican Party to knock it off. On July 29 Will Flanders, research director of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty,, wrote an article headlined “It’s time to be rational about COVID in Wisconsin.” WILL has waged an aggressive legal battle against public health measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 and Flanders relied on already-outdated data to argue that COVID transmission in the state remains low, and therefore mask-wearing in school is unnecessary and “breathless media reports” about increased transmission should be ignored.
For some reason WILL and its Republican allies including Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), the author of the rule blocking UW System’s health measures, have made exacerbating the pandemic their political cause.
On the other side, the Evers administration, stripped of much of its public health authority by Republican lawsuits and Republican-controlled courts, is reduced to the cream puff defense.
To be fair, Evers has also reinstituted masks for state employees and endorsed employer vaccine mandates, which Republicans deride as an unconscionable assault on your individual freedom to infect the person who sits in the cubicle next to you at work.
But what advocates for “freedom” from vaccines and masks are really doing is prolonging the pandemic. Their “freedom” to get and spread the virus means none of us are free to go about our lives and work, shop, socialize, not to mention going wild at the Wisconsin State Fair.
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