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Health officials: Masks slow spread, but aren't foolproof on their own

EAU CLAIRE — People gathering in groups continue to spur new cases of COVID-19 in the state and the Chippewa Valley, state and local health officials said Wednesday.

While face masks will help slow the spread of the virus, wearing one without also keeping your distance from other people isn’t foolproof, officials warned. Different activities mean different degrees of risk.

“We in Eau Claire are seeing social gatherings are a big contributor to disease spread,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

Considered separately, social distancing is more effective than wearing a face mask to cut down on virus risk, health officials say.

But using both is preferable.

Keeping a 6-foot distance from people who don’t live with you is “really the best strategy,” Giese said. “Having a mask on top of that will be additive, and support a slower spread of disease … indoors, particularly.”

Without a 6-foot distance, face masks won’t prevent you from having to quarantine if you get too close to someone who gets COVID-19.

“If you’re 6 feet or closer to that individual, if you’re in close contact with them and wearing a mask, you’ll still need to quarantine,” Giese said.

About 20% of Wisconsin residents with new coronavirus cases in June and July said they went to a party, gathering or other meetup with people outside their home in the past two weeks. In May, that percentage of new cases of the virus was just 7%, according to the state Department of Health Services.

The state on Wednesday debuted a “decision tool,” hoping to help people consider how risky their activities are. The tool will walk people through a series of questions and offer more detailed information about each one: If you get sick, do you have access to health care? Can you wear a mask safely? At a gathering, will you have to share items or tools with other people? Does your community offer testing sites?

The safest scenario is staying home, and wearing a mask when you leave the house, said Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers in a statement: “We hope this tool will assist people in making safe choices.”

The state’s decision tool can be found at or at

No changes in new countywide order

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department’s newest two-week public health order will go into effect just after midnight on Thursday. The most recent order expired Wednesday night.

There won’t be any changes from the previous order, Giese said. Businesses that must post occupancy limits still have to operate at 50% of that occupancy, and groups of people cannot gather in groups larger than 100 indoors and 250 outdoors (although the Health Department recommends gatherings that are much smaller — fewer than 50 people). Giese urged people to still keep 6 feet from other households at large events.

In Eau Claire County, six new cases of the virus were reported Wednesday. Total cases have reached 679, and 16,560 county residents have tested negative, according to county data. The majority, 618, of the county’s virus cases have recovered; 61 are still in isolation and four have died.

The county’s newest weekly metrics show a 6% decrease in new cases this week, compared to last week — 78 total cases this week and 83 last week. But the county’s two-week case total — 161 — is the highest it’s ever been, Giese said.

“That’s the most important thing we’re watching, the trajectory of new cases over time,” Giese said. “We anticipate some level of fluctuation week-to-week.”

The county’s test-positivity rate, or the percentage of all COVID-19 tests that come back positive, is at 6.5% this week, the same as the previous week.

“We see about the same number of tests, on average, being done, and our testing percent remains fairly high,” Giese said.

The state’s seven-day average of new cases has been declining slightly since late July, according to state data — but as of Wednesday, the state was adding an average of 747 new cases each day. Total state cases have reached nearly 67,500.

The Health Department’s COVID-19 call center can be reached at 715-831-7425.

Wisconsin COVID statistics

Dale Karls and his daughter Caroline Karls, check out books from Shannon Paulus on Wednesday at the BookBike in front of L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in Eau Claire. The BookBike can be visited through the end of August on Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. No appointment is necessary. View more photos at

Chippewa County sees 1-week high in COVID cases

CHIPPEWA FALLS — COVID-19 cases in Chippewa County hit a one-week record, with 40 new cases reported, and the county’s positive rate jumped again.

Kristen Kelm, community health division manager in the county’s Department of Public Health, said during a weekly press conference Wednesday that the county remains at a high risk level, meaning the agency recommends indoor gatherings be limited to 15 people and outdoor gatherings capping at 50 people.

Last week, Chippewa County had 29 new positive cases.

Overall, 624 tests were given in the past week, which is an increase of 83 from the previous week. However, 40 new cases from 624 tests is a 6.41% positivity rate, up from last week’s 5.36%. Medical experts have stated a positivity rate above 5% indicates that the virus is prevalent in the community.

The cases continue to climb even as most people appear to be wearing masks in public, indoor spaces.

“The last couple of weeks, we’re seeing clusters (of new cases) in our smaller communities,” she said. “We’ve had some community events where mask-wearing wasn’t there.”

While the county recorded a new high in new cases and positivity rate, Kelm said her office is only tracking 44 active cases, meaning that almost everyone who had the disease previously has recovered. Chippewa County has just one person hospitalized because of the virus, and no COVID-19-related deaths.

The good news is that most test results are still coming back within 48 hours. Kelm said that the numerous health care systems in the Chippewa Valley have done a great job in in-house testing and getting those tests analyzed quickly.

Kelm stressed the importance of following the quarantine guidelines of self-isolating for 14 days after being exposed to someone who has the disease, even with a negative test for the virus.

At this time, no more public drive-thru testing sites have been planned in the Chippewa Valley, she added.

Some schools open, others preparing

Schools in Cornell opened on Monday, and the Stanley-Boyd school district will have their first classes today. Cadott schools Superintendent Jenny Starck said she wasn’t aware of any issues in the first three days of students back in Cornell. Starck said her Cadott district is getting closer to being ready to welcome back students on Sept. 1.

“We’ve done a lot of work,” Starck said. “I actually feel better this week. Last week, we were installing plexiglass. I feel like we’re ready.”

Starck said she will be meeting with new teachers this week, going over everything from online learning platforms to cleaning protocols, and working with students on wearing masks at all times.

“Kids will need help, especially if they haven’t been wearing masks,” she said.

Starck said they also have added internet access points to outdoor spaces, allowing for more outdoor time instead of being in classrooms.

“The more we can have kids outside, in fresh air, the better,” Starck said.

Wisconsin COVID statistics