While requirements end, health officials say masks remain an important protection

By: - March 2, 2022 6:00 am

“Maskphalt” (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

COVID-19 mask requirements are ending in the only two jurisdictions that required them, but public health officials said Tuesday they would still encourage some people — especially those who are more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus — to continue wearing masks in public spaces to prevent the virus from spreading.

Mask orders in Dane County and the city of Milwaukee expired on Tuesday. Statewide new cases of people infected with the novel coronavirus have continued to fall sharply after an equally sharp surge that peaked in mid-January.

Masking remains required on public transportation, including on buses, taxis, trains and at airports under a federal order.

On Friday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new masking guidance that classifies transmission in U.S. counties by disease spread as well as local hospitalization rates.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) reported Tuesday that as of Sunday, Feb. 27, the state has logged on average 645 new cases per day of COVID-19 over the preceding seven days. That is down from a record-high seven-day average of 18,798 new cases per day reported on Jan. 19.

According to the Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA), as of Tuesday there were 511 COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the state, with 92 in intensive care. That is down from 2,278 who were reported hospitalized on Jan. 12 with COVID-19, including 458 in intensive care.

Tests at wastewater treatment plants in Wisconsin for evidence of COVID-19 have shown a drop in virus levels, according to data from DHS. About 40% of the state’s residents live in communities where wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 is being conducted.

Dr. Jon Meiman, chief medical officer in the DHS Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Health, said via email Thursday, “It is not possible to say what the immediate future holds” in examining the surveillance data, but that the department is “actively working to utilize wastewater data for improved forecasting.”

Milwaukee County’s chief health policy advisor, Dr. Ben Weston, said that wastewater COVID data may be able to provide advance warning of a coming increase in cases when fewer people are seeking testing because the virus spread is diminishing.

Even with masks no longer required in Milwaukee, “masks remain a strategy to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” said Kirsten Johnson, health commissioner for the city of Milwaukee, in an online briefing for reporters Tuesday.

Some may be immunocompromised, some may care for a high-risk individual at home, and some may just not be comfortable being unmasked in public. Regardless, we must respect their personal masking choices.

– Kirsten Johnson, Milwaukee health commissioner

People with symptoms of COVID-19 or who aren’t feeling well, people who have had a COVID-19 diagnosis within the last 10 days, or people exposed to someone with COVID-19 but who are not quarantining “should continue to wear a mask,” Johnson said.

Johnson and others who spoke in the online media briefing all emphasized respecting people who decided to continue to wear masks.

“None of us know the circumstances of the people we must come in contact with every day,” the health commissioner said. “Some may be immunocompromised, some may care for a high-risk individual at home, and some may just not be comfortable being unmasked in public. Regardless, we must respect their personal masking choices.”

Both the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County have reduced mask requirements in their government buildings. Milwaukee County continues to require masks in the courthouse, the county jail and other correctional facilities, and human service offices and facilities the county operates, County Executive David Crowley said. The county has also increased its capacity limits for most county offices and buildings to 75% of the official occupancy limit from 50%.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said city employees can use their own discretion in wearing masks except for those working in health care, other unspecified high risk settings, or those who are asked to wear a mask when visiting a homeowner or private business.

Dr. Ben Weston
Dr. Ben Weston (Medical College of Wisconsin photo)

Weston, a professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said that the CDC’s new guidance is intended to account for the pandemic’s burden on local hospitals as well as risk. He warned, however, that the current ebb in COVID cases could just be temporary.

“We’re seeing receding disease burden at this point in the pandemic,” Weston said. “We don’t know how long it’ll last. But very likely, we’ll see more variants and we may see more increased disease levels.”

He cautioned that COVID-19 vaccines remain unavailable for children younger than 5, while as many as 7 million U.S. residents with compromised immune systems are also not fully protected even with a vaccine.

Weston added that CDC guidance that more vulnerable people consult with their health care provider overlooks that as much as 25% of the population doesn’t have a primary care doctor or provider, and suggested the guidance lacks “an equity-focused approach.”

He urged people in more vulnerable groups to continue masking and emphasized the importance of KN-95 or N-95 masks that fit properly. He extended the suggestion to “people who want to protect those around them who are vulnerable.”

A change in masking policy “has to go hand in hand with working to ensure that as many people as possible are vaccinated and boosted,” Weston said, calling the COVID-19 vaccine “the most critical layer of protection against COVID.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor 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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