EAU CLAIRE — Some version of a mask mandate is vital for the state to control COVID-19 spread, but a statewide mask requirement is more effective than a county-only mask mandate, Eau Claire health officials said Thursday in a plea to the public to keep wearing masks in public.
“I really see that we should have a state mandate for this, or a national mandate for this,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. “COVID-19 does not stop at the Eau Claire County borders … this is really best done at a state level.
“We should be doing this because we care about one another,” Giese added Thursday at a news conference in Eau Claire.
Hours after the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature repealed the state’s mask mandate on Thursday, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers issued a new order. Evers’ new statewide mask mandate went into effect Thursday evening, meaning the Legislature will have to vote once more to repeal it.
Republicans say Evers’ mask mandate is an illegal use of the governor’s emergency order powers; health officials statewide warn that voiding a mask mandate would invite much worse virus spread in Wisconsin.
Both the Eau Claire City Council and Eau Claire County Board this week approved local mask mandates.
The local mandates will only take effect if the statewide mandate is quashed.
Several other municipalities, including Milwaukee and Dane County, also have their own local mask ordinances, according to the Associated Press.
Giese said mask-wearing is “clearly proven” to decrease COVID-19 numbers, both at a community and a state level.
“If case numbers go up — and case numbers could go up if we don’t follow basic mitigation strategies — we’ll have challenges in Eau Claire with our hospital capacity,” Giese said in response to a question about a mask mandate impacting hospitals. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid.”
New cases slowing, vaccinations rising
Eau Claire County is averaging about 28 new cases a day, down from an average of 35 per day last week, Giese said.
The county hasn’t seen its average cases per day sink that low since early September. But the county is still ranked as “very high” in case activity from the virus, and county health officials have said their long-term goal is 10 new cases a day.
The county added 35 new cases on Thursday. In total, almost 10,700 county residents have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began.
Since March, 340 county residents have been hospitalized with COVID-19, and 98 county residents have died of the virus, including one death in the last week.
Hospitalizations jumped back up this week. Fourteen county residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the last week, an increase from just three the week before.
Giese warned that ICU beds in northwestern Wisconsin are strained — 91% of ICU beds in the region were occupied in the last 14 days, according to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data.
Also in that several-county region, 74% of inpatient hospital beds were occupied in the last 14 days.
“Unfortunately, our ICU bed capacity is in the red right now,” Giese said. “ .. We don’t want it to go in the wrong direction.”
The Health Department is still monitoring COVID-19 vaccine distribution. As of Thursday, just over 15,000 doses have been administered in Eau Claire County, including 883 doses newly given Wednesday.
“Our biggest challenge” is the state’s too-small allocation of doses from the federal government, Giese said, echoing similar concerns from state officials over the past several weeks.
“This week, as well as coming up next week, we’re not getting as many doses as we’re all requesting, so we’ll unfortunately have fewer appointments available than we could be providing,” Giese added.
The Health Department also plans to open a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Augusta in coming weeks.