Joe Parisi

Joe Parisi speaks to the public in March about the county’s COVID-19 response. He addressed the Waunakee Rotary Club at its April 23 virtual meeting.

One of the first COVID-19 positive test results in the nation was seen in Dane County, and the county’s response has been one of the most aggressive, as well.

As the Waunakee Rotary Club met through the online meeting platform Zoom April 23, County Executive Joe Parisi talked about steps the county had taken to respond since the COVID pandemic began locally.

Parisi said the response will be a process with a beginning, middle and end, and we are now in the late stages of its beginning. Until some therapeutic treatment or cure for COVID-19 is found, it will remain with us.

“Internally, we knew that it was coming, and because it was county government, we are not an organization that could shut down. We are the social safety net for so many folks in our community,” Parisi said. “And during a crisis like this, need is greater than ever.”

Dane County has activated the Dane County Emergency Management Center which communicates weekly updates with community leaders.

Emergency management not only coordinates response but has been working with communities as a bridge to the federal government to help obtain personal protection equipment and emergency funds.

The Public Health Department, a joint department with Dane County and the City of Madison, has also provided response and guidance.

“They’re really where we begin when we look at decisions we make regarding our response,” Parisi said. “We want everything we’re doing based on the most up-to-the-minute scientific data.”

The No. 1 responsibility is protecting human life, he added. That comes with economic impact and suffering on a number of fronts. The county is doing what it can to prevent a second wave of COVID cases.

“We believe it’s not time let up off the gas. We don’t want to have to do this again. We want to do it right the first time,” Parisi said.

The Safer at Home guidelines have done well to help flatten the curve, Parisi said, and Dane County has been relatively successful in following them. Hospitals are not overflowing; they are at about 60 percent capacity.

“I have to say, at a hardship to them. They’ve emptied out a lot of beds; they’ve postponed different types of procedures in order to maintain surge capacity,” Parisi said.

County officials are also looking at using the Alliant Energy Center for potential hospital facilities if needed. The logistical work has been done to use the center in that capacity, but no decision has been made to move forward. If the county does have a spike in cases and needs added capacity, a location is ready.

County government also runs the jail and the Badger Prairie Nursing Home. Early on, these were shut down to outside visitors.

“It’s been very difficult for residents of the nursing home, their friends and family,” Parisi said.

To date, Badger Prairie is COVID free.

The jail, however, has had a small outbreak of cases, but they are sequestered in one cell block, Parisi said. Testing is going on and will be done for the entire population, including deputies who work there.

Parisi said early on, the Dane County Sheriff worked with judges and the District Attorney’s office to reduce the jail population with alternative sentences given. Normally at 750, the jail population is now at 500.

Financially, Dane County government is hit hard by the pandemic. Its annual operating budget is normally at around $500 million; $68 million is forecast to come from sales.

“We will take a tremendous hit in sales tax, probably at least a $20 million deficit there,” Parisi said.

To help offset that deficit, the county instituted a hiring freeze and will look at other options.

“Just like everyone else, we’re going to be facing some challenging times,” Parisi added.

County officials also moved quickly to protect the homeless population. It has a number of shelters for men and women both daytime and nighttime. The homeless in the shelters are vulnerable, and the shelters had environments where COVID-19 could potentially spread quickly.

The Salvation Army shelter housed single women and women with families. The county found hotel rooms for families, allowing single women to remain in the shelter with safe social distance.

As for the overnight shelter, those identified with preexisting conditions were also placed in hotel rooms. Currently, about 300 individuals occupy hotel rooms.

Also for the men, Warner Park Community Center was offered as another alternative.

The number of homeless using services at the Beacon, a daytime shelter, has also dropped because of the number of people in hotel rooms.

Early on, Dane County officials knew small businesses would be hit hard. As a stop-gap while small business owners were waiting for federal resources, the county worked with Dane Buy Local to provide a grant program with $800,000 of county funds.

“It’s turned out there is much more need than there is resources at this time, but we will continue in county government to try to find other resources to direct that way,” Parisi said.

As for returning to normal, Dane County will follow guidelines set by the health care community. That includes at least 14 days of a reduction in cases, adequate testing and adequate personal protection.

Even then, Parisi said, “It wouldn’t be just flipping the switch back on. It will probably be a slow increase in activity when that time comes, but I’m committed to not doing that too early because I don’t want to wipe out all of the gains that have been brought about by our Safer at Home so far.”

Parisi noted if we return too quickly and virus spikes again, people will hurt even more.

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