Mask, vaccine mandates get support, but mostly will be up to private sector

Administration considers requiring shot for state employees; DHS urges universal masking in schools to curb resurgent virus

By: - August 13, 2021 6:40 am
Gov. Tony Evers

Gov. Tony Evers speaks Thursday at an online media briefing about the resurgence of COVID-19. (Screencapture | YouTube)

As the COVID-19 delta variant continues to spread, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers expressed support Thursday for schools, hospitals and businesses that institute mask mandates or require vaccines.

During a briefing for reporters held online, Evers also said his administration would decide within a week whether it will require state employees to be vaccinated for the coronavirus.

At the same time, though, state Supreme Court rulings on lawsuits filed by Republican leaders in the Legislature or their allies last year and earlier this year make a new statewide mask mandate unlikely, Evers’ top lawyer acknowledged during Thursday’s briefing. “There simply are fewer tools available to implement mitigation measures like that,” said Ryan Nilsestuen, the chief legal counsel for the governor’s office.

The state Department of Health Services (DHS), following recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending that schools institute mask requirements for students and staff when the fall semester starts, recognizing that children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Evers took part in the DHS COVID-19 media briefing for the first time in three months. “Frankly, I hoped we wouldn’t be back,” the governor said. “But unfortunately, we are back again today because we are seeing a concerning, steady increase in COVID-19 cases here in Wisconsin.”

Cases double in two weeks

After diminishing remarkably since the beginning of 2021 through the month of June, infections from the coronavirus have been steadily increasing. On Thursday, DHS added 1,460 cases to its record of COVID-19 infections in Wisconsin, bringing the total number in the state throughout the pandemic to 634,495. New cases have averaged 1,104 a day over the last seven days — double the seven-day average from two weeks earlier and 11 times what it was a month ago.

“We are clearly seeing a surge in cases,” said DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk.

The delta variant of the virus, now the dominant version spreading in the state and across the country, “is highly contagious — much more contagious than the original strain of COVID-19,” Van Dijk said.

Julie Willems Van Dijk, DHS deputy secretary

In its original form, at the start of the pandemic in the late winter of 2020, a person infected with the virus would typically infect two other people, and each of them would probably infect two others, she explained, for a total of one infection spreading to six other people. Someone infected with the delta variant, however, will more likely infect five other people, who will each infect five others — “a total of 30 cases from one infection,” Van Dijk said. “You can see easily how this variant will spread like wildfire.”

The virus will spread even more rapidly when the weather cools and people spend more time indoors with others, she added.

Without taking proper precautions, “It’s not a matter of if you’ll get it, it’s when — and we know that people who are unvaccinated are most at risk for getting very ill, hospitalized and dying,” Van Dijk said.

Deaths from COVID-19 have risen, although they remain much less frequent than in past surges. DHS has recorded a total of 7,466 deaths since the pandemic started, with the recent seven-day average of deaths now standing at two per day.

We are clearly seeing a surge in cases.

– Julie Willems Van Dijk, DHS deputy secretary

The lower death rate in the current wave of cases is largely because people 65 and older, who are at the highest risk for dying, also have the highest vaccination rate, approaching 90%, she said. At the same time, with more disease comes more hospitalization, she noted.

“Death is not the only indicator of the consequences of COVID-19 that we should look at,” said Van Dijk. So-called long-haul COVID — with debilitating symptoms that linger well past the time it takes for many patients to recover — has afflicted younger patients, she added, making the illness “still a very serious event for them.”

Vaccinations ‘not moving fast enough’

The state continues to aim for getting at least 80% of the population vaccinated. Nearly three million Wisconsin residents — 49.9% of the state’s population — are fully vaccinated, and 53% have begun the vaccination process. They “are moving in the right direction,” Van Dijk said. “But we are also not moving fast enough.”

Van Dijk warned that in Florida, where the vaccination rate is similar to Wisconsin’s, COVID-19 cases are overwhelming hospitals, and Wisconsin could face the same outcome. Vaccination is the key to avoiding that, she said.

The vaccine protects not only the person who gets the shot, she said, but also “our families and neighbors who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, such as our children.”

In response to a reporter’s question, Evers said that offering a financial reward to unvaccinated people for getting vaccinated was “still under consideration,” but a decision had yet to be made.

Both Evers and Van Dijk also expressed support for health care employers who have begun requiring employees to be vaccinated, even as some health care workers have joined protests against such requirements — encouraged a week ago by state Senate President Chris Kapenga.

“Our health care institutions are at the critical point, and I support their decisions,” Evers said. “It’s important that people that are being taken care of by these institutions …  can feel safe.” To that end, he called a vaccination requirement “a reasonable thing to do.”

Van Dijk noted that health care employers already require employees to have vaccinations for other illnesses.

Masking in school and in public

With children under 12 not yet eligible for the vaccine, masks for children and for school employees will be especially important when school resumes, said Ryan Westergaard, a physician and chief medical officer for the DHS communicable diseases bureau.

While children are in the age group least likely to have severe effects from the virus, “we’ve also learned that children can become infected and spread it to others in their family and to each other at just as high a rate as any other age group,” Westergaard said.

State and local public health departments have generally favored requiring masks for all schools, on students and staff, to reduce the risks that unvaccinated children would be unknowingly infected or transmit the virus, he added.

German school children wearing protective face masks in August 2020. (Maja Hitij | Getty Images)

“This is really probably one of the biggest priorities,” Westergaard said. “One of the biggest differences we can make in the coming months is to make sure that when children go back to school, we make those environments as safe as possible. And that includes everyone wearing masks.”

An unusual summertime increase in children hospitalized for other respiratory virus illnesses besides COVID-19, such as parainfluenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), has been filling pediatric intensive care units in recent months. That “adds some urgency to the precautions we must take to prevent transmission [of the coronavirus] from reaching our schools and other settings where young people are,” said Westergaard. It also poses the risk that a surge in children with COVID-19 could strain available pediatric resources, he added.

In response to a reporter’s question, Evers expressed sympathy with local officials around the state who have been confronted at school board meetings by people angrily protesting the prospect of new school masking requirements.

“It has never been more difficult to be a school board member in the state of Wisconsin, during a pandemic,” said Evers, who spent much of his early career working in schools. While local officials “have to be responsive to the people that elect them and put them in charge of kids’ education,” he added, “at the same time, they also have some obligations around following the science — and the science certainly indicates that mask wearing in schools would be highly, highly recommended.”

For vaccinated adults who are now being urged to wear masks again, Van Dijk acknowledged that the recommendation was a reversal from what the CDC, as well as DHS had told the public in May: that vaccinated people were generally safe going without masks, while unvaccinated people should remain masked.

“In May, the evidence showed that vaccinated people were not spreading the virus,” Van Dijk said. Since then, she added, “we learned that vaccinated people who are infected with the delta variant can spread it to others.”

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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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