In Wisconsin, the first person to be diagnosed with COVID-19 was in Dane County, and since then, the county has worked to protect citizens, forging partnerships with farmers to deliver food where needed, funding for businesses and housing security.
County Executive Joe Parisi updated the Waunakee Village Board on the county’s response to the pandemic, now resurging, at the board’s July 6 Zoom meeting.
“We were doing exceptionally well compared to the rest of the state and a lot of states as far as COVID cases when we were under Stay at Home orders,” Parisi said, referring to Gov. Tony Evers’ orders that the state Supreme Court struck down.
After the court ruling, Dane County instituted similar local orders. The county then began Phase 1 of its reopening plan with success, but after transitioning to Phase 2, the number of people testing positive began to rise.
Parisi said during Phase 1, the county saw about 20 cases per day, even with large numbers of tests given.
“Well now we’re seeing, the last couple of weeks, consistently over 100 positives a day,” Parisi said.
The spike poses capacity challenges for contract tracers tasked with contacting every person each COVID-positive individual has been in contact with.
“We’re constantly monitoring hospital capacity,” Parisi said, adding that hospitals are regional facilities.
Contract tracing has revealed that most cases have been occurring in bars, Parisi said. Half of the cases are in Madison and half outside of Madison.
The public health department responded by taking a step back, restricting bars to carry-out or outdoor service and restaurants to 25 percent capacity.
“We realize that continues to create an economic hardship,” Parisi said, but he added an even more contagious strain of COVID has emerged.
Other areas successful in keeping cases down have stayed closed long enough, had a masking policy and opened very slowly, Parisi said, adding Canada is seeing about 50 positive tests nationwide.
“We’re seeing about three times that just in Dane County,” he said.
Parisi said the county is trying to revive the spirit people had in March.
“We realized as much as we wanted to hang out with our friends and get some human contact, that is still very dangerous, and we need to get this back under control. Because the experts are telling us, this isn’t the second wave. This is still part of the first wave,” Parisi said.
County officials had talking about instituting a mask mandate, a direction Parisi said is needed.
Parisi said the county will continue to help people survive the pandemic economically.
Some of the initiatives to help others achieve economic survival have included two $3 million investments in foodbanks, allowing farmers to supply dairy products and soon crops to those in need.
Small businesses have been hit hard, as well, and the county has set up a $10 million relief effort with Dane Buy Local to provide grants. Another $3.5 million was invested in grants for childcare centers. The county also partnered with the Tenant Resources Center to provide $10 million in an effort to prevent evictions, so payments could be made to landlords and tenants could remain in their homes.
Waunakee officials have also heard from citizens asking the village board to take action on a mask mandate, said Village Administrator Todd Schmidt. The village’s attorney has indicated that because this is a public health emergency, the health department should be responsible for issuing such a mandate, Schmidt said.
“I heard you say here that you support the mandate, I think, but there’s a lot of issues in the weeds,” Schmidt said.
Parisi said several details need to be worked out, including accessibility – ensuring everyone can afford them – and logistics. Enforcement is also an issue.
“There have been concerns among people in communities of color [who are] worried about being racially profiled when wearing a mask,” Parisi added. County officials have had conversations with law enforcement to make sure they are sensitive to these concerns.
Parisi said he expected a decision on the mandate within 24 hours, and Tuesday morning, it was announced to take effect July 13.
Village President Chris Zellner noted that bars and restaurants have had serious difficulties and asked if any more assistance is forthcoming.
Further assistances will depend on whether additional CARES Act funding will be allocated, Parisi said.
“I’m very sensitive to that and I’ll continue to work with federal legislators,” Parisi said.
Village Hall to remain closed
Schmidt reported that the Waunakee Village Hall would remain closed until July 28, delaying a plan to reopen July 6. The July 6 date was set to allow for absentee balloting on that day, Schmidt said. But an appeals court ruling changed the date for balloting to July 28.
“With that change coupled with the uptick in the COVID cases, and really having been relatively successful at servicing our residents and their needs in different ways… we made the decision and smart decision, I think, in keeping Village Hall’s doors closed in person,” he added.
Waunakee’s library and the Village Center remain partially open.
Local health workers
Waunakee EMS Director Scott Russell reiterated Parisi’s comments about a spike, noting that about 11 percent of tests are positive.
“Now more than ever it’s important to be wearing those masks and realize when you go out, be very careful and realize anybody you come in contact with, just treat them as if they do have this virus,” Russell said, adding he thinks the case numbers will get worse before they get better.
Russell advised against going out unless necessary and to keep masks on. As of July 6, the county had 2,475 confirmed cases, 227 hospitalizations and 32 deaths.
“The striking number is the number of positives we have has actually tripled within the last three weeks, compared to what we thought was the worst of it, over the last couple of months,” Russell said.
Dr. Bill Ranum, a village trustee and family physician, said one person from the Waunakee had died that day, and more cases are appearing now than in the past.
“I have no hope of this going down. I think this is just the first wave, and so it ends up being that the vulnerable will have to stay out of the way as much as you can,” he said.