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‘To beat this virus, we have to be united’: Chaos and resistance to COVID-19 measures hinder Wisconsin’s response – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Posted: November 26, 2020 at 1:55 am


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Wisconsin's mask mandate and other orders aimed at stoppingthe spread of the coronavirus have been hindered by mixed complianceand a "patchwork" of decisions by elected officialsand local health departments about whether to enforce the rules, public health experts and scientists say.

"The lack of a statewide response, much less a national strategy, is an obstacle,"said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has faced a slew of challenges from Republicans against his public health orders, including a stay-at-home order, a mask mandate and capacity limits for businesses statewide. The mask mandate is the only order still in place, and it is being fought in state courts.

Republicans have argued that counties and municipalities should take a regional approach to combating COVID-19, butlocal orders have also been met with lawsuits from conservative groups.

Evers has issued another mask mandate, which will stretch into 2021. He does not intend to issue any other capacity limits.

Currently, Wisconsinis facing an alarming rise in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, along with a high number of deaths each day. As of Wednesday, the average number new daily cases over the last seven days is near 6,000, hospitals are close to capacity and more than 3,000Wisconsinites have died.

Patrick Remington, former epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's preventive medicine residency program, said the best approach to tackling the massive outbreak is working together.

"To beat this virus, we have to be united in response," he said.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporters sent surveysto all 98 county, city and tribalhealth departments across Wisconsin, asking how they enforced the mandates and handled complaints. Thirty-four of the departments responded, and their answers showed there is no universal enforcement of Evers' public health orders.

Some departments said they try to educate businesses and other entities on how to keep people safe from the virus. Others have taken a stricterstance and have issued warnings.

Only four of the responding departments said they had issued citations for violations of the orders.

Many other departments responded that they had no authority to enforce the orders.

The lack of a statewide strategyfor health departments to followcould prolong the length of the pandemic.

Remington said American society's love of individualism is what's made controlling the pandemic so hard.

"As a culture, we generally don't like to be told what to do. It's as simple as that," he said. "People generally like freedom of choice and the ability to take risks."

But that's the reason so many people have fallen ill there's a weakness in only a partial response when large-scale collective actions are needed, Remington said.If people were to uniformly respond to the health orders, wear a mask and stay home for a period of time, the state wouldn't be in the situation it's in now.

"I think it doesn't really help if just some of us do this. It has to be all of us," Remingtonsaid. "The virus finds the weakest link. It continues to be transmitted as long as people are getting together without taking precautions."

The holidays area concernbecause of the different levels of enforcement and the likelihood of travel, even though health experts are asking people to not leave their homes.

"People will be traveling from communities that have not restricted activities and have not enforced the stay-at-home order," Remington said. "That's where we'll see community spread."

Part of the challenge public health officials face is the balancing act between education and enforcement.

"Since the beginning, it's been this balance between, on one hand, orders and enforcement, which are certainly critical. But just as important is the education and messaging as well as really the individual decision making," saidBen Weston, director of medical services at the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

That's an issue that health departments noted in their surveys they can't police every person, and they also can't slow down spread alone.

"It appears not all people are practicing the actions that prevent the spread," said a response from the Marathon County Health Department. "The health department can't slow this down; every individual can contribute to slowing the spread."

The Brown County Department also noted individual actionsas one of the biggest challenges in educating and enforcing mandates.

"Another painpoint has been human behavior. Lack of willingness or participation in simple actions like wearing a mask or cloth face-covering, practicing good physical distancing and staying home except for essential services and needs," the department noted in its survey response.

Health officials in Waushara County reported thatpeople have ignored guidance from the departments to not go into public after a test until they receive a negative result, including attendingweddings and going to work.

Teaching people about the dangers of COVID-19 has alsobeen made more difficult because, as a "novel disease," ithas unusual qualities, including its long incubation period, pre-symptomatic spread, and severity, Weston said.

More: 'It's just going to be like this now': These Wisconsinites survived COVID-19, but 'recovery' hasn't meant a return to normal

He added that the confusion around COVID-19 has been made worse by "the conflicting messaging that's out there."

"And it's out there at the highest levels," Weston said."And so no matter how prominent a microphone I or any other local health officials have to speak from, the importance of quarantining, the importance of masking, the importance of physical distancing.When that is conflicted at a much higher level, much louder level, it's hard to get that message across."

Heinrich added that "COVID fatigue"and the politicization ofsafety measures like masks and physical distancing also have hurtefforts to combat Wisconsin's COVID-19 spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

"The community is fatigued. Looking at the numbers, things are getting worse. This virus is not going away,"Heinrich said in an email.

Masks haveremained a contentious issue, even as more states including those with Republican leadership are calling for their use as cases climb around the country.

"I think the debate on masks and utility of masks ended a long time ago, and there really isn't room anymore for that debate. The science is done," Weston said. "Masks prevent transmission of disease, period."

But he noted that masks are "one layer of protection" and can only do so much if people are indoors "around a bunch of other people for a prolonged period."

Departments have been battling misinformation about masks in particular, and even facing harassment for asking citizens to ensure they're keeping their faces covered.

In La Crosse, the health department had an individual come to their building with a Go-Pro camera on their head, demanding to speak with who is in charge of making us all wear masks. The director wasn't available to speak at the time, so the person took the harassment online.

"He then posted threatening messages online and our department was closed to the public for several days so that law enforcement could follow up," the department said in its survey responses.

As thousands of new cases are reported each day, health officials in Wisconsin have also been struggling to keep up with efforts to inform individuals about COVID-19 exposure and spread.

The overwhelming workload isn't the only issue for local contact tracers many of the people they're able to reachdon't want to share information, and some even insult or threaten contact tracers.

"Our contact tracers bear the brunt of the abuse," the Ho-Chunk Nation Department of Health said in its survey response."On many occasions, people become belligerent because they feel that contact tracers are infringing on their personal rights. They have been threatened by law enforcement, lawsuits and people use very colorful language with them."

If people are going to insist on taking an individual approach, they need to realize that the burden of stopping the spread of COVID-19 isn't on the backs of health departments or medical experts it's on each and every person in the state, Remington said.

"If we as citizens tout the importance of individuality, we can help by being safe and not increasing the risk of exposure or getting others sick," he said.

Duke Behnke, Erin Caughey, Diana Dombrowski, Allison Garfield, Benita Mathew, Jordyn Noennig, Frank Vaisvilas and Sarah Volpenheim contributed to this story.

Laura Schulte can be reached atleschulte@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.

Contact Mary Spicuzzaat (414) 224-2324 ormary.spicuzza@jrn.com. Followheron Twitter at@MSpicuzzaMJS.

Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin:See the latest numbers and trends

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'To beat this virus, we have to be united': Chaos and resistance to COVID-19 measures hinder Wisconsin's response - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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