By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — If the data indicates a large spike in COVID-19 cases in Dunn County, or if other interventions are not working, the Dunn County Health Department could issue an order requiring masks in schools.
KT Gallagher, director of the Dunn County Health Department, spoke about mask orders as part of her weekly update on COVID-19 via Facebook Live on July 24.
In response to a question, Gallagher said she could issue a health department order requiring masks in schools and would consider doing so if the infection rate in the county was particularly high and if other interventions were not working to reduce the rate of infections.
As of July 27, Dunn County had doubled the number of coronavirus infections in 10 days.
For right now, Gallagher said she strongly recommends people wear cloth face coverings when they are “out and about,” and especially if they cannot maintain social distancing of six feet.
Masks are not a replacement for social distancing and are not a replacement for good hand hygiene, Gallagher said.
“Good hand hygiene” refers to washing your hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds.
In the absence of soap and water, alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be used.
Another person asked whether the Dunn County Health Department and the local school districts are working together on plans for starting school this fall.
Yes — Gallagher said she and health department staff are meeting regularly with the school district administrators and advising them on public health best practices.
One person asked if the Dunn County Health Department would close schools if there was a high level of COVID-19 infections.
Making the decision to close schools would depend on a variety of different factors, Gallagher said.
On the Dunn County Health Department website, there is a data portal that links to the state Department of Health Services COVID-19 information, she said.
One consideration is the measure of activity, which is how many cases there are per 100,000 people, and which is known as the “burden.” Thresholds are “moderately high” right now in Dunn County, and trends and trajectories also have to be considered, Gallagher said.
Right now, the virus activity in Dunn County is “high,” she said.
If there was a “high burden” in Dunn County with an “increasing trajectory” of infections, then the county would need additional community interventions, Gallagher said.
Those interventions could include mandatory masks and/or mandatory physical distancing, she said.
Some factors would be school district specific, Gallagher said, and the situation would be similar to when there is a high rate of influenza.
If there are a certain number of students and teachers absent because of influenza, then a school district will close for awhile, and the same would be true for a high rate of COVID-19 infections, she said.
Other considerations are whether there is a high local illness rate or a mortality rate that is higher than it should be or if there is a strain on the regional hospital system, Gallagher said.
One person asked if it was safe to have 25 kids in the same room in school all day, with the students and teachers breathing the same air?
The same person also wanted to know Gallagher’s current recommendations for gatherings.
The current recommendation for gatherings is 25 indoors and 50 outdoors, she said.
Mitigating risk for COVID-19 in schools will depend on whether there are multiple layers of barriers (Plexiglass and Personal Protective Equipment), the policies and the procedures of the school district, environmental controls (procedures for disinfecting and sanitizing) and how much physical distancing is possible, Gallagher said.
Health screening will be important, too, whether it is the parents checking temperatures before children leave for school or whether it is the school district checking temperatures when children arrive at school, she said.
Gallagher said she believes it is safe to start school but that the situation will require monitoring for clusters of illnesses in classrooms or in particular school buildings.
One person wanted to know how Dunn County residents could find out about potential exposures to COVID-19.
A public notice was recently issued about two local establishments where someone who was positive for the coronavirus was in close contact with others but did not know who the other people were so they could be contacted, Gallagher said.
“Assume we have community spread,” she said, adding that people should always keep the idea of community spread in mind when they are going to the grocery store, doing curbside pickup for food or going into shops downtown.
People should always be aware of maintaining social distancing and should be practicing good hand hygiene, she said.
People also should assume they could be sick and not know it. People who have been pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic with COVID-19 have gotten other people sick in Dunn County, Gallagher said.
People should also be aware that if they have mild symptoms that may not feel much different from normal asthma symptoms or allergy symptoms, they could be positive for COVID-19 and be spreading the virus to others, she said.
If the Dunn County Health Department cannot contact trace, or if the department cannot work with a local business, the department will issue a public notice about possible exposure, Gallagher said.
Another person wanted to know about antibody testing for COVID-19.
People can work with their local healthcare provider to get an antibody test, but the antibody testing will not be free, Gallagher said.
People also can give blood to the American Red Cross because the Red Cross is routinely testing for antibodies in the blood supply, she said.
The Red Cross always wants to know what could be in the blood supply, and in the case of testing for antibodies, that can provide information on regional trends and can also provide information for treatment purposes, because it has been shown to be effective to treat people with severe COVID-19 illness with blood that already has antibodies, Gallagher said.
One person wanted to know why the percentage of positive COVID-19 cases was increasing, but the number of hospitalizations was decreasing.
Health professionals are learning more about the virus, and health care providers are doing more early interventions to monitor and treat the symptoms, Gallagher said.
During news briefings with state officials in recent weeks, the same question has been asked.
State officials also note that there is a higher percentage of younger people who are testing positive for COVID-19 and that younger people tend to have less severe illness and tend to require fewer hospitalizations.