One month ago, Gov. Tony Evers issued a statewide mandate requiring anyone over the age of 5 to wear a face mask indoors or risk being fined $200.
People both pro and con made their voices heard as Wisconsin joined dozens of other states with a similar order. But four weeks later, cases of the coronavirus still remain high throughout the state.
So, what’s happening?
Wisconsin has witnessed a plateau in positive cases the past two weeks, with an average of 700 a day for a seven-day period. That is lower than the 887 average when the mandate started on July 30.
But there also has been less testing — 15,000 people a day a few weeks ago now down to 10,000 or less each day the past two weeks.
While there appears to be a trend of fewer COVID cases across the nation in the last three weeks, Wisconsin is seeing high numbers, with 843 new cases reported on Friday alone.
“Unfortunately, as of now, the trend has not been significantly impacted. We are anticipating the effect to start showing soon,” said Samroz Jakvani, an epidemiologist with the Jefferson County Health Department.
An increase of positive cases in Jefferson County the past two weeks has placed the county near the top 10 in the state, with 217 new cases. And neighboring Waukesha County ranks second with almost 1,000 in that same period.
But the issue of whether masks lower positive case numbers might not be as simple as people wearing face coverings out in public. The issue might be people not wearing them around friends and family.
One of the issues Jakvani has seen is that compliance with the mandate has varied across settings.
“It would appear that individuals are wearing them while indoors in public spaces, but that compliance in private gatherings and outdoor spaces is less than ideal or recommended,” he said.
Gail Scott, director of the Jefferson County Health Department, said that data from contact tracing shows that 60 percent of people who contract the coronavirus report known exposure with someone who was infected. The remaining 40 percent of cases are due to unknown or probable community spread.
Although areas like Milwaukee and Dane counties have had their own mask orders for almost two months, cases remain high there, with Milwaukee accounting for almost a fourth of all COVID-19 cases in the state.
So, is there any data yet in the state that shows a correlation between the mask order and a drop in new cases?
“As of now, no. However, the new daily case count for Sunday and Monday (of last week) have been lower than anticipated,” Jakvani said. “While data from two days is not significant enough to impact the trend, it is worth noting and may indicate an effect of the mask order.”
Chris Barron, executive director of population health and clinical services at Fort HealthCare, said he has experienced firsthand how masks are working.
“We’ve detected numerous, recent positive cases where the patient’s close contacts did not become infected as a result of preventative measures like masking, distancing and hand hygiene,” he said.
“I have personally been one of those close contacts and credit the facts that I was masked, the positive person was masked, and there were appropriate distancing and hand hygiene in place to prevent me from getting infected. It works.”
On Friday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 74,000 people having tested positive since the start of the pandemic in March. It grew to 75,337 by Sunday.
In Jefferson County, 900 cases of the virus had been reported by Sunday, with six deaths. That is up 30 cases from Friday.
Across the nation, the number of Americans newly diagnosed with the coronavirus is falling. Experts credit mask wearing, but also a lack of testing.
About 43,000 new cases are being reported daily across the country, down 21 percent from early August, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The percentage of tests coming back positive for the disease also has declined over the past two weeks, from 7.3 percent to 6.1 percent.
The situation has improved dramatically in several states that struggled with high caseloads earlier this summer.
In Arizona, officials reported 859 new cases Tuesday, down from a peak of 5,500 in late June.
A litmus test to see how prevention is doing likely will take place over the next few days and weeks as schools and universities begin classes.
“We are confident that that when positive individuals (many of whom might not initially know they’re positive) enter a controlled environment such as a business, school or workplace where masking, distancing, and hand hygiene are in place, we are seeing the spread decrease or stop,” Barron said.
The important element in all this, he said, is to acknowledge that people who have come into close contact with infected individuals might need to be isolated and thus will be unable to work or attend school in person for a period of time.
“The better we can all be at masking, distancing and hand hygiene, the better chance we all have of keeping things open,” Barron said.
College towns around the nation are seeing COVID-19 cases increase because students are holding parties and socializing in bars, most often without face masks and social distancing.
The mayor of Tuscaloosa, Ala., shut down bars for two weeks after University of Alabama officials reported an “unacceptable” rise in COVID-19 cases.
The school will hold a fall football season with about 20,000 fans allowed, although tailgating is banned. Coach Nick Saban also is urging people to wear masks.
“It’s not just about football. So, for people to make the right choices and decisions to wear their masks, do the things when they’re out publicly, respect the rules, respect the virus, that’s important,” he said.
In recent weeks, schools including the University of North Carolina, Michigan State and Notre Dame, have moved instruction online after outbreaks on their campuses.
Officials at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville said four students are facing disciplinary proceedings after three hosted off-campus parties with no mask or other distancing and another left isolation to meet with friends despite testing positive for the virus.
“If the facts reported to the university are accurate, these students will face at least suspension from the university, and potentially greater penalties,” Chancellor Donde Plowman wrote.
With the mask mandate in the early stages, Barron said, health-care workers are experts in infection prevention and see every day how infection-prevention measures work.
“At the community level, we want to thank everyone that have been masking up, keeping their distance and washing their hands,” Barron said. “But there is still work to be done if we want to get this pandemic under control, and keep it under control.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.