As the number of coronavirus cases approaches 5,000 in Jefferson County, Fort Atkinson City Council President Mason Becker said precautions and protocols already are in place at the Fort Atkinson Municipal Building, and no new protocols have yet been discussed.
Jefferson County officials, too, recently said that no new protocols are being discussed at the county level, as county agencies wait to see what will be implemented at the state level.
Gov. Tony Evers begged people Tuesday to skip Thanksgiving celebrations with anyone from outside their households as Wisconsin set a new record for COVID-19 deaths.
The DHS reported Tuesday that the disease was a factor in another 104 deaths, a new daily record. The department reported another 6,202 confirmed infections; the state has now seen 363,973 cases since the pandemic began in March.
In Jefferson County, 4,993 cases of COVID-19 have been reported since March. There have been 33 deaths,
Responding to questions about future precautions the city might take, Becker said that while he was aware Rock County recently returned to Phase I of its COVID response plan, the City of Fort Atkinson was limiting access to the municipal building. And the Dwight Foster Public Library already was offering limited access through curbside pickup.
“How can we keep our city employees safe so they can continue the quality of service the residents in Fort Atkinson expect and deserve?” Becker asked. “There is not a lot more on the table.”
He added that protocols for the City of Fort Atkinson Public Works crews have been discussed, with suggestions including “splitting crews apart.”
Becker said his conversations with Interim City Manager Dave Burner have focused on keeping city employees safe.
After Evers’ “Safer-at-Home” order was overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in May, Becker said Fort Atkinson, like many other communities throughout Jefferson County, decided against issuing any type of citywide ordinance.
In June, the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors opted to postpone its two-page document, which would have expanded the powers of the county health officer, giving that office the ability to take “all measures necessary to prevent, suppress and control communicable diseases.”
The proposal was defeated in July.
Jefferson County met with “push-back,” Becker said, adding that while the county board was seeking to clarify its role, “about 500 people came to their meeting and had a negative reaction.”
“We don’t have our own health department (in Fort Atkinson),” he said. “We fall under the Jefferson County Health Department, so we have no means to implement and enforce it (local COVID-specific order).
“We are surrounded by townships that would not be participating, so I’m not sure anything we do at the local level would be effective.
“This is a national pandemic,” he emphasized, adding that, from his perspective, it requires a national and statewide response.
Becker expressed frustration with what he described as “push-back” that was being “stirred up by our Legislature in Madison,” which, he said, was taking place through social media and talk radio.
Those activities, he said, make it harder for officials at the local level.
“I still get email from area residents asking us not to do anything,” Becker said. “They claim masks don’t work, and doing anything about health and safety would be unconstitutional.”
He cited “disinformation” as a contributing factor.
Becker criticized State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, for not drafting a new bill or proposal that would help guide cities and municipalities as they look for tools with which to fight the pandemic.
“Why have they not met for 200 days?” Becker asked. “Our council is meeting twice a month and still getting business done.
“We passed a budget last night (Nov. 17),” he added. “Our state government could take a cue from that and get back to work on fighting this pandemic. The can has been kicked down to the local level and we don’t have the tools, and it’s sad.”
Becker said the city’s main concern is to “encourage people to follow basic steps and guidelines like wearing a mask, observing social distancing and washing their hands. We encourage local residents to do that so our local hospital doesn’t become overwhelmed.”
“We (county) have been trying to do things, but a lot of people don’t like masks and they are very vocal about it,” said Jefferson County Board Supervisor Mary Roberts.
The board, she said, has not engaged in recent conversations about facemask recommendations and protocols beyond updates shared with county supervisors from County Administrator Ben Wehmeier, encouraging supervisors to follow Centers of Disease Control and prevention (CDC) recommendations.
The board was waiting for Evers to issue his statewide mandate that he did on Nov. 20, extending the mask order to Jan. 19.
“There are people who listen and people who won’t listen, and it’s frustrating because we are going up and up (in the number of COVID-19 cases) because people won’t wear a mask, which, I believe, is such a simple thing to do,” Roberts said.
Jefferson County Board Supervisor Dick Schultz said he was not aware of any new discussions about COVID-19 protocols at the county level.
“It’s a very difficult issue,” Schultz said. “It’s amazing how many people take this way too lightly. It’s a serious problem and it’s not pretend.”
He expressed frustration with those who argue against wearing facemasks, citing a violation of their rights.
“I don’t have the right to drive 100 miles per hour to Madison for safety reasons,” Schultz said.
Citing his own health issues, he said, “We need to look at the population as a whole.”
“In Jefferson County, the health department has made recommendations and we support them, but they are just so under siege,” Schultz said. “The Governor has some mandates in place and there are people playing politics with that, and that’s what’s so sad.”
Jefferson County Health Department Director Gail Scott said that since a state mask mandate already is in place, the county would not need to adopt one of its own.
“We have never really done phases. We have always said that if you are in groups outside of the home you should consider yourself exposed. We have said that people need to stay home and follow the CDC guidelines,” she said.
Scott suggested that people should be proactive this holiday season by finding ways to celebrate safely in their homes and remotely via virtual sites.
Contacts made with people outside of the home should be kept at a minimum and then only for essential services, she said.
In Jefferson County, she said, COVID-19 cases steadily are climbing.
“We are in super high critical mode with the number of cases,” Scott said. “It’s time to buckle down.”
Protocols at the county level are recommendations, she said.
“We do not have a local ordinance. One was not passed by our county board,” Scott indicated, adding that an ordinance was proposed at the county level but that information, which she described as “misleading,” caused an adverse reaction to what was being proposed.
The proposal, she said, was to allow the health officer to issue orders, and put an enforcement and appeals process in place.
“If we issue orders now … there is no good mechanism in place for enforcement and people to appeal it,” Scott stated. “We thought our ordinance would have allowed for a good process for the health department and the residents in our county, but it got derailed and things were said that were not true, and a very large group of people came to the county board meeting and expressed that information.”
She said Jefferson County still is looking at mechanisms through which a strong guidance could be provided.
“Right now, we are hoping people listen to our guidelines,” Scott said. “This is an unprecedented time in public health and people need to take this seriously.”
The number of people hospitalized has been dropping every day since the state hit a record high of 2,277 patients on Nov. 17, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. As of Tuesday afternoon 1,986 people were hospitalized, down 13 patients from Monday.
Area hospitals and long-term care facilities are struggling to keep up with the demand for care, Scott said, adding, “People in the hospital with COVID-19 are very sick.”
Scott described patients with as many as 10 IV pumps.
She advises people to do “anything they can to avoid this disease.”