Dane County issues new mask requirement as COVID-19 climbs again

Statewide order unlikely, while other local agencies mull their options

By: - August 18, 2021 7:00 am
face masks in different colors hanging on a clothesline

Masks (Chris Zúniga | via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

With local COVID-19 cases continuing to spread, Madison and Dane County officials announced a new mask mandate Tuesday aimed at curbing transmission of the coronavirus while urging people who haven’t yet been vaccinated to do so.

The new order takes effect Thursday and will last for 28 days, said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County. It requires people in the county to don face coverings “in any enclosed space open to the public” where there are other people besides a person’s own household, and when driving or riding public transportation. It includes a number of exceptions, such as while eating or drinking.

“This simple step, in combination with our best tool, vaccination, will only help keep people safe,” Heinrich said at a news conference announcing the new order. The order follows a three-week period from July 19 to Aug. 12 when the county’s seven-day average of new cases each day soared more than 380%, from 19 to nearly 92.

Statewide, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) reported that, as of Monday, the state has confirmed 1,218 new cases a day on average over the past week. The last time the state’s seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases was at that level was early February.

Wisconsin logged 12 new deaths from COVID-19 as of Monday, according to DHS, with a seven-day average of four deaths — double the seven-day average as of late last week. The total number of confirmed deaths now stands at 7,483, the agency reported.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported that as of Monday, 660 people in the state were in the hospital for COVID-19, a level not seen since January. According to DHS, hospital admissions for the coronavirus have increased in every region of the state.

County’s strong stance

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway emphasized that the Dane County mask order, faithfully followed, could prevent more drastic measures. “This order means that we can continue to do the things that we enjoy with the people we care about, without capacity limits or gathering limits,” she said.

Among local public health agencies in the state, Public Health Madison & Dane County has been the most willing to institute aggressive mitigation measures for the virus. More than two weeks before Gov. Tony Evers announced the first statewide mask order, Dane County’s first COVID-19 mask requirement was announced July 7, 2020, and took effect July 13, 2020. The county lifted that order on June 2 of this year in keeping with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that vaccinated people were safe to gather with each other without masks.

Dane County also leads the state in COVID-19 vaccinations, with 71.4% of county residents having received at least one dose and 68.3% having completed a vaccination series, and has one of the highest vaccination rates in the U.S. Statewide, 53.4% of Wisconsin residents have received at least one dose and 50.2% are completely vaccinated.

In high-vaccine Dane County, the rates of vaccination and confirmed COVID-19 infections have increased simultaneously because, while vaccinated people are far less likely to have a “breakthrough” infection, unvaccinated people are extremely vulnerable to the highly contagious new variant, Heinrich said. The delta variant of the coronavirus spreads much more easily than the original virus that triggered the pandemic in early 2020.

“That’s what this variant does — it is extremely transmissible,” Heinrich said. “Even if you are vaccinated it is increasingly likely you can transmit it to others.”

All three versions of the COVID-19 vaccine remain very effective in protecting vaccinated people from contracting the virus, Heinrich said. And when people do experience a “breakthrough” infection, it protects them from experiencing severe symptoms of the illness, she added.

But with more than 160,000 people in Dane County alone who are not yet vaccinated, the virus has a continued opportunity to spread, said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

Some of the unvaccinated are people who are unable to take the vaccine for health reasons, primarily because they have compromised immune systems, or because they are under 12 years old — the youngest age to receive federal approval for the vaccine.

For that reason, Parisi, Heinrich and Rhodes-Conway all observed, ensuring that children wear masks when they are among other people, and that everyone else, vaccinated or unvaccinated, wear masks will be key to curbing the spread of the virus until many more people are vaccinated.

Limits on state public health power

While Dane County officials are able to declare a new mask order, and while Gov. Tony Evers and DHS officials have encouraged all state residents to resume masking when in gatherings, the prospect of a new statewide mask order appears remote. A legal advisor in the governor’s office last week told reporters that state Supreme Court rulings, such as one earlier this year ending the statewide mask order, would likely prevent such mitigation measures.

Elsewhere in the state, local public health officials have been discussing how to respond to the new increase in cases, according to Darren Rausch, co-president of the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards.

“There’s been a lot of conversation over the past several weeks where we go from here or where others go from here,” said Rausch, health officer for the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield, in an interview with the Wisconsin Examiner on Tuesday. He said that the state Supreme Court’s rulings limiting state and local public health orders in the last year have prompted caution among some local health officials.

That's what this variant does — it is extremely transmissible.

– Public Health Madison & Dane County Director Janel Heinrich

Unvaccinated people are “the biggest driver of new cases,” Rausch noted, and that shows in the increased percentage of cases among young people. In Milwaukee County, people under the age of 18 — including the children 11 and younger who are not yet eligible for the vaccine — now account for about 21% of COVID-19 cases, according to the most recent data, he said. A year ago, when the county started breaking out data for the under-18 group, they were about 14% of cases.

“It’s certainly a significant increase,” Rausch said — and made more so considering that school will be resuming soon.

Since mid-July, local public health officials as well as the state, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC have been urging schools to require masks for everyone to help prevent transmission, especially among unvaccinated children. The local health departments association last week issued a statement endorsing those guidelines for schools and school districts as “the best way to have a safer return to school and trying to keep the kids safe,” Rausch said.

At odds over public health measures

While several Wisconsin Supreme Court rulings appear to have curtailed state laws granting the state health department broad power to combat contagious diseases, those rulings also indicated that the governor’s office could renew mitigation measures by securing the agreement of leaders of the state Legislature.

Leaders of the Legislature’s Republican majority, however, have rejected such proposals, sometimes scorning public health measures aimed at quelling the COVID-19 pandemic. Most recently, some have challenged private sector employers such as hospitals that have begun requiring their employees to be vaccinated.

Sen. Andre Jacque
Sen. Andre Jacque

Meanwhile, on Monday evening, State Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) — an opponent of mask and vaccine requirements — disclosed in a text message to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he had been hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19 late last week. Jacque stated that he had “personally reached out to the limited number of close contacts from last week in case I was positive at the time,” according to the Journal Sentinel.

At least three Democratic lawmakers who were present during a public hearing Wednesday, Aug. 11, at which Jacque spoke while not wearing a mask, said they did not learn of his diagnosis until the newspaper published its story Tuesday morning. 

“Because Republican legislative leaders refuse to require masks or utilize contact tracing, everyone who was in the hearing room is now at risk,” declared Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) in a statement Tuesday afternoon.  Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) also issued a statement in which he said he had not learned of the diagnosis until Tuesday, and Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) told the Journal Sentinel she had not been notified, either. 

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Erik Gunn
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.

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