by CHRIS ROGERS
Trempealeau County issued its own, local mask mandate today. It takes effect on Saturday and requires face masks in virtually all indoor settings when people from different households are present. Public health officials called on all residents and businesses to comply and follow other safety guidelines to slow the virus, which has overwhelmed local contact tracers and killed five county residents so far this month.
The order requires anyone over age five to wear a face mask “in any enclosed building where other people, except for members of the person’s own household or living unit, are present; in line to enter any enclosed building; driving or riding in any vehicle where other people, except for members of the person’s own household or living unit, are present; and outdoors at a public place where 6 foot physical distancing cannot be maintained.”
This move came as Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask order was set to expire in three days. Unsure whether the governor would take action, Trempealeau County health officials decided to issue a local order. Now that the governor has extended his order, too, both the state and county governments require masks.
Trempealeau County Health Officer Barb Barczak and her staff had wanted to avoid issuing any local orders, saying earlier this summer that they were hopeful people would voluntarily follow health guidance. What forced the health department to resort to this order? “The situation had become so dire in Trempealeau County that more had to be done,” Trempealeau County Public Health Information Officer Kaila Baer responded.
The virus is multiplying out of control in Trempealeau County. In the last seven days, there were 449 new cases — double the amount from 10 days ago and quadruple the amount in late October. The county considers 25 cases per day per 100,000 residents severe. As of today, the county was averaging 216 cases per 100,000 residents, according to state data — more than eight times that threshold.
The amount of infections has overwhelmed the county’s ability to do contact tracing, which warns people they might be infected and asks them to quarantine to prevent further spread. For example, yesterday, Trempealeau County had 104 new cases of COVID reported to contact tracers. However, tracers were still working through a backlog from the day before and were only able to reach out to 40 of the new cases, leaving 60 more on the to-do list, Baer reported. Each day, the backlog piles up, and the lack of rapid contact tracing leads to more transmission of the virus. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Baer stated. “We can’t contact everybody, so then there’s people who are positive or maybe a close contact and asymptomatic and positive and don’t know it yet. So they’re out there and spreading and causing more COVID cases.” Public health needs the community’s help to slow the virus, county health officials said. The health department urged COVID-positive people to stay home, alert people they were in contact, and follow state guidance, and asked contacts of infectious people to stay home and follow guidelines, as well.
“We are issuing this mask order because we have continued to see a rise in COVID-19 cases across the entire county at an alarming rate,” Baer said. “Having widespread use of the masks is really key to pushing us in the right direction with COVID-19,” she added.
Numerous studies support public health guidance that wearing face masks can help reduce the spread of COVID, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports. The CDC also advises that wearing masks provides some level of protection to the wearer themself, in addition to preventing the wearer from potentially getting other people sick.
In issuing the local order, Trempealeau County Health Officer Barb Barczak cited Wisconsin Administrative Code Section 145.06, which empowers public health authorities to order citizens to do things to prevent the spread of communicable disease. If people don’t comply, the code allows health officials to petition a court to require compliance. If people still don’t comply, they could be charged with contempt of court, Baer said. Additionally, the County Board of Health has recommended that the County Board adopt an ordinance that would allow the county to fine people for violating public health orders, including the mask requirement.
Whether people follow guidelines and slow down the virus doesn’t just affect them, it affects all parts of the community — sometimes simply because they aren’t enough healthy people to keep things running, Baer said. “The more cases and close contacts we have, that’s leading to schools having to shut down because they’re not staffed enough or they have too many students out, which means parents have to stay home from work to take care of their kids,” she said. “We are also seeing small businesses have to shutdown while they are in quarantine, or they tested positive maybe and they have to shut down while they do some cleaning and isolation. And that is really, really hard on our small businesses. Trempealeau County is so full of wonderful local businesses, but if they have to shut down for two weeks, that can be so so hard on a small business.”