Dunn County continues with declared state of emergency due to COVID-19

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE    The Dunn County Board has declined a resolution to end the state of emergency declared because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The executive committee held a thorough discussion of the resolution to end the state of emergency and unanimously recommended the county board not approve the change, said Gary Stene, vice-chair and county board supervisor from Colfax, at the Dunn County Board’s July 29 meeting.

The resolution establishing a declared state of emergency for six months was approved by the Dunn County Board in March.

Stene noted that he had initially been in favor of ending the declared state of emergency but that he changed his mind after seeing the spike in COVID-19 cases in Dunn County, in Wisconsin and in other states around the country.

Keeping the declared state of emergency is in the best interests of the county for now, Stene said.

Ending the state of emergency would be premature, because the UW-Stout students are not yet back in Menomonie and the schools are not yet open, said Tim Lienau, county board supervisor from Menomonie.

The county board should wait to “see what happens” when all of the students are back in school before giving serious consideration to ending the state of emergency, he said.

Some people view the declared state of emergency as the county board “abrogating their responsibility” and giving up the responsibility to non-elected managerial personnel, said James Tripp, county board supervisor from Menomonie.

But the Dunn County Board, by declaring — and keeping — the state of emergency, is taking an active step to allow the county government to respond quickly to any change in the situation with COVID-19, he said.

Earlier in the meeting, KT Gallagher, director of the Dunn County Health Department, had reported that Barron County had seen an increase of 70 cases of COVID-19 in a single day because of an outbreak at a facility.

The next day, Wisconsin Public Radio identified the facility as Seneca Foods in Cumberland.

The state of emergency allows the county manager and the director of public health to make decisions quickly about how the county will operate, Tripp said.

Continuing the declared state of emergency is significant to the county’s ability to maintain flexibility, he said.

Move forward

Larry Bjork, county board supervisor from Menomonie, disagreed and said it was time to end the state of emergency and time to “move forward.”

COVID-19 does not have such a high fatality rate that there are no hospital beds available, he said.

“How long can we hide from what we can’t see?” Bjork asked.

“I don’t believe COVID-19 is fatal,” he said.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website, Wisconsin’s fatality rate from COVID-19 stands at 2 percent. A few weeks ago, the fatality rate was listed at 3 percent. Influenza typically has a fatality rate of .01 percent.

If half of the people in Dunn County were infected with COVID-19 (about 22,000 people), at a 2 percent fatality rate, 440 people could be expected to die. With a 3 percent fatality rate, 550 people could be expected to die.

If half of the people in Dunn County were infected with influenza, 22 people could be expected to die.

Gallagher also reported that Dunn County’s rate of hospitalization from COVID-19 cases is around 9 percent, the same percentage as the statewide average.

If half the people in Dunn County were infected with COVID-19, 1,980 would require hospitalization.

There are no Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds in Dunn County.

COVID-19 is considered highly contagious because it has a long incubation period — up to two weeks — and people can shed the virus and infect other people before they start showing symptoms themselves.

A certain number of people who contract COVID-19 show such mild symptoms, they do not realize they are sick, while other people remain asymptomatic.

People over the age of 60 and people who have underlying health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure or asthma, are considered to be at high risk for developing severe complications from COVID-19.

No need

There is no need for a declared state of emergency, said Michael Rogers, county board supervisor from Menomonie.

The Dunn County Board can handle any decisions that need to be made because of the pandemic. The county board is elected to make decisions, he said.

The number of cases of COVID-19 in Dunn County have more than tripled since the last county board meeting in June, said Kelly McCullough, county board supervisor from Menomonie.

The county board does not meet in August, and the students will be returning to the university and to the school districts, he said.

“Now is a terrible time to end (the declared state of emergency),” McCullough said.

Decisions

The decisions that have been made about closing the county buildings and the operating procedures during the pandemic would need to at least go before a committee if not before the full Dunn County Board, said Paul Miller, county manager.

Under the declared state of emergency, policies can be implemented right away, such as allowing county employees to quarantine at home for two weeks if they have been exposed to COVID-19 or for county employees to work from home so they can also take care of their children who have not been in school because the schools were closed statewide, he explained.

Those decisions would have taken two months otherwise because they would have had to go through the procedure for updating the county’s employee handbook, Miller said.

Other decisions that have been possible because of the declared state of emergency include requiring health screenings for people entering the county buildings, requiring employees and county residents to wear masks inside county buildings, allowing other employees to work remotely either because they are in a high-risk category or to reduce the number of employees in county buildings so social distancing is possible, he said.

Considering that Barron County experienced an increase of more than 70 COVID-19 cases in one day, the declared state of emergency allows county officials “to move adroitly,” Miller said.

Again?

If the declared state of emergency is not ended at the July 29 meeting, will it come back on the agenda again later? asked Robert Bauer, county board supervisor from Mondovi.

The original resolution declaring a state of emergency was approved at the March 18 Dunn County Board meeting and is set to expire September 18, Miller said.

The declared state of emergency will end right about the time the Dunn County Board is scheduled to meet next in September.

Gallagher has asked county board members to promote the use of masks, said Vaughn Hedlund, county board supervisor from Boyceville.

Hedlund said he does not like wearing a mask — but he wears one anyway.

“My mask is for everyone around me” — family, friends, co-workers, people on the street, people in the grocery store, he said.

The rate of infection needs to be decreased now, Hedlund said.

At the beginning of the meeting, Julie Wathke, county clerk, read a letter signed by medical professionals, hospital and clinic administrators, law enforcement officials and school district administrators asking for support for everyone to wear masks.

Hedlund referred to the letter and said remaining flexible is important.

“We need to keep ourselves healthy and safe,” he said.

Votes

The resolution to end the declared state of emergency was turned down on a vote of 26 “no” to three “yes.”

Voting “no” on ending the declared state of emergency were Jim Zons (county board supervisor from Colfax), James Anderson (Menomonie), Robert Bauer (Mondovi), Gary Bjork (Colfax), John Calabrese (Menomonie), Jerry Joe Hartung (Elmwood), Vaughn Hedlund (Boyceville), Brian Johnson (Colfax), Mike Kneer (Menomonie), Sarah Kennedy (Menomonie), Jody Kromrey (Menomonie), Donald Kuether (Menomonie), David Bartlett (Boyceville), Tim Lienau (Menomonie), Charles Maves (Boyceville), Kelly McCullough (Menomonie), Diane Morehouse (Menomonie), Tim Niehoff (Menomonie), Randy Prochnow (Menomonie), Tom Quinn (Downing), Ron Score (Boyceville), Gary Stene (Colfax), Sheila Stori (Menomonie), James Tripp (Menomonie), Carl Vandermeulen (Menomonie) and Ann Vogl (Menomonie).

Voting in favor of ending the declared state of emergency were Michael Rogers (Menomonie), Larry Bjork (Menomonie) and Steven Jenson (Elk Mound).

Committee

The county board at the June meeting, directed the executive committee to consider writing a resolution to end the state of emergency that would be on the agenda at the July 29 meeting.

The county board meeting in June was conducted using the Zoom online platform, with a videotape of the meeting posted to Dunn County’s YouTube channel.

The vote to refer the matter to the executive committee was close.

While the Colfax Messenger and at least one county board member tallied the vote at 15 “no” to 14 “yes,” because of technical difficulties with the Internet connection and sound quality, and some county board members being “muted” while attempting to record their votes on a roll call by the county clerk, the official tally was 15 “yes” to 14 “no.”

Bartlett, as chair of the Dunn County Board, declared the vote valid based on Dunn County Clerk Julie Wathke’s initial tally of 15 “yes” to 14 “no.”

Later on, the Colfax Messenger listened to the videotape again to try to figure out how the Messenger’s tally had come up differently than the official tally — and still had 15 “no” to 14 “yes.”

In a follow-up telephone call with the county clerk, Wathke said she, too, had listened to videotape, and the vote was, indeed, 15 “no” to 14 “yes,” but since the county board chair had declared the clerk’s initial tally as the official vote, the state of emergency declaration would be on the executive committee’s agenda at the July 22 meeting for a resolution to end the state of emergency.

At the July meeting, which was also conducted via Zoom, Wathke implemented a new procedure to clarify the votes of the county board supervisors.

When the county clerk called the roll for the votes, and after each supervisor voted, Wathke would repeat the vote — for example, “Supervisor Bartlett votes no,” and then would record the vote.

The new procedure added an element of efficiency and clarity as well for those listening to the meeting.

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