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By LeAnn R. Ralph
HUDSON — Education and communication.
Those are the goals of the St. Croix County Health and Human Services Board for forming a subcommittee to consider a county ordinance on communicable diseases and to form communication strategies for disseminating information on COVID-19 to residents in St. Croix County.
Cathy Leaf, St. Croix County Board supervisor for District 4 and a member of the health and human services board, said she had asked for the subcommittee to be on the agenda for the August 19 health and human services board meeting because there is “lots of fear” among county residents.
The idea of a subcommittee came up as a way to improve communications about COVID-19 and to consider an ordinance dealing with the duties of the county’s public health officer concerning communicable diseases, said Dave Ostness, county board supervisor for District 10 and chair of the health and human services board.
State statutes list the duties and authorities of public health officers, but an ordinance would clarify the duties and authorities, he said.
St. Croix County has a small public health department, and in the midst of a pandemic, better communication will help the public health department fight the pandemic, Leaf said.
No one wants another shutdown, and scientific data can be communicated to the public to encourage voluntary compliance, she said, emphasizing the words “voluntary compliance.”
There is lots of misinformation about COVID-19, and in the absence of information, people fill in the gaps, Leaf said.
The residents of St. Croix County need to work together to move forward and to keep businesses and schools open, she said.
The subcommittee will get information out to county residents; the public health department is there to help, Ostness said.
People have concerns about the public health officer ordinance, said Carah Koch, county board supervisor for District 5 and a member of the health and human services board.
More than a dozen St. Croix County residents voiced their concerns during the public comments portion of the meeting.
Many of the comments focused on “government over-reach” and “maintaining freedom.”
State law gives broad authority to public health officers to stop and combat communicable diseases, said Scott Cox, St. Croix County Corporation Counsel.
Several of the people speaking during public comments said they were concerned about public health officer ordinances from other counties being similar to a proposed ordinance for St. Croix County and that they were concerned it was a coordinated effort among counties to engage in government over-reach and to take away freedoms.
The reason the ordinances look similar is because the ordinances can only do what the state legislature allows them to do, Cox said.
State law allows public health officers to take actions that are “reasonable and necessary” to suppress communicable diseases, he said.
The draft of the ordinance is based on a work product produced by a group of state-wide health officials, Cox said.
There is no mechanism for enforcement of a communicable diseases ordinance unless the ordinance is allowed under Wisconsin state statutes, he said.
If the pandemic turns suddenly worse, it is in the best interests of everyone that public health officers do what they can to suppress the disease, said Dr. Paul McGinnis, a member of the health and human services board.
No one knows the future of the pandemic, and a public health officer “is not someone off the street,” said Deb Lindemann, a member of the health and human services board.
Public health officers have credentials that make them qualified to make decisions about the health and safety of the public, she said.
The comments made before the health and human services board are comments that are echoed all over Western Wisconsin, said Scottie Ard, county board supervisor for District 13 and a member of the health and human services board.
Ard said she works with the Salvation Army and deals with people with COVID-19 every day.
The top priority is to make sure people stay safe, she said.
Public health officers are “looking out for you. For me. For everyone in the county,” Ard said.
Ard encouraged people to “stop reading fictitious posts” on social media and to go to the St. Croix County public health department to obtain factual information.
Hiring a public information officer for St. Croix County was “a great idea,” to help people understand information about COVID-19 and what authority public health officers have under state law, Ard said.
The St. Croix County Health and Human Services Board voted unanimously to form a subcommittee to address communication needs for COVID-19 and for possible discussion of an ordinance dealing with the duties of the county health officer.
The subcommittee will make recommendations to the health and human services board.
If an ordinance is forwarded to the health and human services board, the board will decide if a proposed ordinance should be forwarded to the St. Croix County Board for consideration.
A draft of any proposed ordinance that would be considered by the health and human services board will be included in the meeting packet posted on the St. Croix County website’s meeting portal.
The health and human services board has set a deadline of submitting a proposed ordinance to the health and human services board by the September 16 meeting so that if a proposed ordinance comes before health and human services, it can be forwarded to the St. Croix County Board for the October meeting.
Ostness suggested a 90-day deadline for submitting a proposed ordinance, but others attending the health and human services meeting noted that if the pandemic quickly takes a turn for the worse, time may be of the essence for the health, safety and welfare of county residents.
The subcommittee members are Leaf, Dr. McGinnis and Greg Tellijohn, supervisor for District 14 on the St. Croix County Board.
The health and human services public health communications subcommittee met August 31.
The subcommittee discussed several different drafts of a communicable disease ordinance.
The subcommittee also discussed a communicable disease ordinance communication plan.
Before the health and human services September 16 meeting, communication strategies will include:
• Collecting the concerns residents have about the ordinance and determining how to address those through a list of Frequently Asked Questions.
• Creating a webpage for information about the ordinance and FAQs on the St. Croix County website.
• Developing survey questions.
• Creating and publishing the survey to the St. Croix County website.
• Developing a communication kit that includes a link to the survey and messages promoting the survey, describing its purpose and encouraging participation.
• Promoting the survey on the St. Croix County Facebook page.
• Sending the communication kit to local media and municipalities.
• Collecting and analyzing the survey responses. Sending the findings to HHS subcommittee.
• Reviewing the survey findings with the HHS subcommittee and discussing further communication needs.
• Sharing survey findings with the county board and HHS members.
Here is the proposed survey.
“We would like to hear your concerns or comments about COVID-19 and the ordinance by filling out this survey. This will help us collect all of your concerns and comments in one place, which will be shared with all county board supervisors and members of the HHS board.”
• Where do you get your information about COVID-19?
• Please rate how much of a concern the following are for you about COVID-19. Very concerned. Moderately concerned. Slightly concerned. Not at all concerned. Don’t know. — Need more information on the communicable disease ordinance; need more information on the role of public health; need more information about this disease; need more information about the data; need more information about testing; not knowing how safe it is to participate in activities outside my home; trouble finding consistent or accurate information; health impacts; financial impacts; loss of work; access to medical services; ability to pay for rent/mortgage, groceries and bills; missing or postponing major life events (graduations, birthdays, weddings); missing family and friends; mental health impacts.
• What concerns do you have about COVID-19 or the proposed communicable disease ordinance that were not listed here?
• Do you have additional comments or suggestions you would like to share?
The survey is expected to be published on the St. Croix County website and promoted on the St. Croix County Facebook page on September 3.