As Dane County cases spike, officials again criticize county plan

    Testing
    Public health workers assist with the lines. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

    As Dane County faces a spike in new COVID-19 cases, a group of Madison Common Council members and county supervisors has requested the county quickly hire more contact tracers, adjust the metrics in its reopening plan, mandate the wearing of masks and shut down in-person service at all bars and restaurants. 

    The group of officials requested these measures in a letter to Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC). This is the second time this group has sent a letter to PHMDC that questions the prudence of the county’s Forward Dane plan. 

    “We have been urged by our constituents to put safety first,” the letter stated. “Many are willing to continue to do whatever is needed to avoid continued loss of life and permanent disabilities associated with this disease.”

    “Multiple studies have shown how effective masks are in halting the spread of the virus,” it adds. “It’s the least we can do to mandate the wearing of masks in public. We should also close bars and restaurants for in-person service, given that in- restaurant spending was recently found to be a strong predictor of increases in new Covid-19 cases, and dozens of recent Dane County cases have been traced back to these types of businesses.” 

    The letter was signed by Alds. Patrick Heck, Marsha Rummel, Donna Moreland, Max Prestigiacomo, Syed Abbas, Tag Evers, Grant Foster, Samba Baldeh and Rebecca Kemble, along with Supvs. Heidi Wegleitner, Richard Kilmer, Elena Haasl, Michele Ritt and Teran Peterson. 

    While the letter largely echoes the arguments made in the group’s May 25 letter, it also directly responds to the challenges created by the new spike in cases. 

    The letter says that the county’s 36 contact tracers cannot handle the number of new cases per day. Three days in the last week, June 24, 25 and 27, Dane County had more than 100 new cases of the virus — the highest ever daily numbers. 

    With the case count increasing by this much, the county’s 36 contract tracers will not be able to keep up with the workload, the letter argues. 

    “But when the number of new cases each day continues to outstrip the number of available contact tracers, how are they able to keep up with current demand, let alone follow up with a backlog of cases?” the letter asks. “How can they maintain high standards for interviewing people, determining contacts, interviewing contacts and providing isolation and quarantine advice and assistance under these conditions?”

    The letter also calls into question the metrics used by the county in moving toward reopening businesses. Now, and in May, the group said the metrics are too vague and overly broad to give an adequate picture of the state of the virus in the county. 

    “We previously questioned the lack of planning for a surge in cases in the Forward Dane plan, since this current surge in positive cases was the predictable outcome of reopening,” the letter states. “We remain concerned that the rebound metrics described in your presentation are not sufficiently spelled out, and that there is no clear indication about what would happen when these metrics are met. What conditions and set of restrictions would we rebound to?”

    As part of the criticism of the metrics, the letter writers also complain that Madison’s business community was apparently involved in the development of the reopening plan, while they say elected officials were locked out of the process. 

    “We were shocked to hear that the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Madison, Inc. and Destination Madison provided detailed, critical support in writing the Forward Dane plan at a time when County Board Supervisors, Alders, the Board of Health for Madison and Dane County, and by extension the general public, were left out of the conversation,” the letter said. 

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    Finally, the letter asks that the county institute a mandatory mask requirement in order to slow the spread of the virus. Masks have been shown to greatly reduce the chance that someone will spread the disease. 

    “Multiple studies have shown how effective masks are in halting the spread of the virus,” it said. “It’s the least we can do to mandate the wearing of masks in public.”

    Kemble says the letter largely speaks for itself, but did add that the county should also work to reduce wait times at the community testing site at the Alliant Energy Center. She also pointed to a memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau to Dane County legislators that said the county had allocated $33 million in CARES Act relief to ineligible costs.

    Instead, Kemble says, that money should go to public health infrastructure such as contact tracing and testing.

    PHMDC did not respond to a request for comment.

    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.