By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — The Dunn County Facilities Committee has decided to leave the policy “as is” that determines the number of unvaccinated people in the grandstands at the Red Cedar Speedway based on the previous week’s COVID-19 infection rate.
With the current rate of COVID infection in Dunn County, the grandstands could have zero percent unvaccinated people, said KT Gallagher, health officer and director of the Dunn County Health Department, at a special meeting of the facilities committee August 31.
Mark Thomas, president of the Red Cedar Racing Association, had asked the facilities committee at the August 25 meeting to change the policy to allow 100 percent capacity in the grandstands at the Punky Manor race.
The Punky Manor Challenge of Champions is scheduled for September 24 to September 26,
The Red Cedar Speedway is located in the Dunn County Rec Park in Menomonie.
Based on the resolution approved by the Dunn County Board, the Red Cedar Speedway could have 25 percent capacity as of last week Monday, and as of this week Monday, since there are more than 90 cases, the capacity for unvaccinated people would be zero percent, Gallagher said.
After the Dunn County Board approved the resolution establishing policies and procedures for the Red Cedar Speedway during the COVID-19 pandemic, the county board authorized the facilities committee to have control over adjusting the agreement as changing conditions would allow.
The grandstands at the Red Cedar Speedway have a capacity of about 1,450 people.
Without being able to race last season because of COVID-19 and because of the slow start to the season this year and being restricted on the numbers of people who can attend the races, the Red Cedar Racing Association wants to end the season on a strong note, Thomas said.
The Punky Manor race could put the racing association in a position financially to be able to take care of certain items in the off season and to pay bills that need to be paid, he said.
Many other events are going on in the vicinity, such as the Ridgeland fair, farmers’ markets, events at the Mabel Tainter and the Colfax Firefighters’ Ball, Thomas said.
“We’re not trying to be careless. This is not something people have to come to. It’s an option for them. The people (who) do come — they get it. We see people acting different. They know to stay away from people in lines (and at) the restrooms,” he said.
The Punky Manor race also is an outdoor activity, and there are not many restrictions across the country for outdoor activities, Thomas said.
The Punky Manor race is a “big revenue boost” for the community and for the county as well, which will help businesses get back on their feet or to stay on their feet, he said.
Thomas noted that the members of the racing association appreciate the facilities committee and the Dunn County Health Department for working with the association on being able to hold races.
So far, Dunn County has had 5,111 cases of COVID-19 and 468 probable cases, Gallagher said.
The number of probable cases is increasing quickly because one of the health systems is using the rapid test/antigen test for symptomatic people, she said.
As of the day of the facilities committee meeting, Dunn County had 145 active cases of COVID-19, seven people hospitalized and 37 deaths, Gallagher said.
The increase in cases has brought significant changes, she said.
In the United States, and in Wisconsin, 95 to 99 percent of what is circulating is the Delta variant of COVID-19. That is important because preliminary data shows the Delta variant is more severe, and the data in Dunn County is consistent. Younger people are being hospitalized, and more people are being hospitalized, Gallagher said.
Natural immunity, vaccine immunity and passive immunity for infants from breast feeding is not as good at preventing infection with the Delta variant, and there are more breakthrough cases, more re-infections for people who have already had COVID but who are not vaccinated and more infants are testing positive for the disease, she said.
“We have had some very small people hospitalized recently,” Gallagher said.
The Delta variant is really impactful for children, who are the largest population in the county who cannot be vaccinated, and they are more susceptible to illness with the Delta variant, she said.
Of the active cases in Dunn County, 5.5 percent are under the age of nine, and that is an increase of almost a half a percent in the last 10 days, Gallagher said.
“Our numbers are large enough that it takes a lot of cases to move the percentage up, and that is concerning,” she said.
The severity of the Delta variant also is concerning, Gallagher said.
One hospital in the region is on “divert,” which means the hospital is not taking any more cases. Ten other hospitals in the region are at peak capacity, she said.
The hospitalizations are a lagging indicator of COVID, and it usually takes three to 10 days before people are hospitalized, Gallagher said.
“I expect in three weeks, it will continue to get worse, just as it has in many parts of the country. I do not believe Wisconsin, or Dunn County, will get out of this without additional hospitalizations overwhelming our capacity,” she said.
The facilities committee members all heard and understand the financial concerns of the Red Cedar Racing Association, said Paul Miller, county manager.
The facilities committee should also be aware of the private cost of COVID-19, he said.
If someone ends up being hospitalized with COVID, a six-day stay, on a broad average for an insured individual, is $38,000 out of pocket, Miller said.
An uninsured person can expect to pay $73,000 for a six-day stay in the hospital with COVD, he said.
If someone ends up in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), the number goes up considerably to $250,000, Miller said.
Whether the facilities committee should allow county facilities to be used during a pandemic with a variant of this virus that is highly contagious is not about freedom of choice for the individuals going to the races, but rather, is a matter of public health, he said.
At the Dunn County Board meeting at the end of July, seven fully vaccinated people contracted the virus. Fortunately, because they were vaccinated, they did not end up the hospital, Miller said.
Dunn County’s vaccination rate remains low at around 40 percent of the people vaccinated, Miller said.
“We can expect, at even an event outdoors, there will be transmission (of the virus),” he said.
The facilities committee should be aware of the private cost to the individual and the public cost to supporting the individuals who are in the hospital, Miller said.
“The ones who are very sick, and God forbid, the ones who die — (what is) the cost to our local community, to our region, to our state and to our nation. (The cost) is already in the billions of dollars,” he said.
The financial concerns of the individuals, and the cost to the public, should be weighed against the financial concerns of the Red Cedar Racing Association, which are legitimate financial concerns as well, Miller said.
Don Kuether, county board supervisor from Menomonie and a member of the facilities committee, wanted to know how many people at the August 13 races at the Red Cedar Speedway, out of the 56 percent of the patrons who were not vaccinated, wore masks.
Thomas said he did not know how many wore masks.
At the August 13 races, the racing association was “above 50 percent allowance,” so masks were not required, he said.
There are people who wear masks at the races, but the racing association does not have exact numbers, Thomas said.
If Gallagher believes the situation is serious concerning COVID-19, what about other outdoor events in Dunn County, such as football games? Are any of those events being restricted? asked Mike Rogers, county board supervisor from Menomonie and a member of the facilities committee.
The Dunn County Health Department has put out recommendations but no orders, Gallagher said.
The Dunn County Board and the facilities committee put forward a resolution that establishes capacity in the grandstands for the races, and the health department will continue to put out recommendations and not orders, she said.
Ron Score, county board supervisor from Boyceville and a member of the facilities committee, said he had been “skeptical about COVID-19” and thought that it could not happen to him or to anyone else he knew.
“Two weeks ago, I contracted COVID. It’s real. I believe in it now. I had Lyme’s disease at the same time. I’m just letting you know it is a problem, and it is something we really should think a lot about,” he said.
Kuether said that he, too, had contracted COVID and believed that he had picked up the virus at the Dunn County Board’s July 28 meeting.
Kuether noted he was thankful he had been vaccinated because “it was not a bad case. I was still sick for a week or so, and I think I still have some (after effects).”
Rogers said that he also had contracted COVID-19 and understands that it is a serious situation but also believes people should make their own choices and would support allowing people to make their own choices about going to the races at the Red Cedar Speedway.
David Bartlett, county board supervisor from Boyceville and chair of the Dunn County Board, noted that at the last meeting he had asked Gallagher if there were any cases of COVID-19 that could be contact-traced to an outdoor event, to which Gallagher had replied that she was not aware of any cases traced to an outdoor event.
“If masks were required, would that ease your mind KT? Do you think outdoor events with masks would be all right?” he asked.
“That is a challenging question,” Gallagher replied.
A multi-layered mitigation strategy is important. Keeping physical distance, wearing a mask and being vaccinated are all very important tools in the prevention of spreading COVID-19, she said.
Gallagher went on to say she would not be comfortable with a full grandstand and people wearing masks when the hospitals are full and there is no ability to treat people for appendicitis, or a car accident or a heart attack.
“We do not want a super-spreading event that would put additional strain on the hospital system,” she said.
The options would be to change the existing policy, to leave the policy “as is” or to do something else,’ said Charles Maves, county board supervisor from Boyceville and chair of the facilities committee.
Rogers made a motion to open up the Punky Manor race to 100 percent attendance if everyone wore a mask in the grandstands.
Although Maves asked three times for a second to the motion, and waited between each ask, no second was forthcoming, and the motion died for the lack of a second.
Since there was no second at 100 percent, what about 75 percent, which would be 1,098 tickets? Thomas asked.
Kuether then made a motion to retain the present system that has been in use and said his reasoning was that if the facilities committee approved 100 percent, it would seem that county government “is giving its blessing and implies that it is safe.”
As a point of order, Maves asked Miller if it was necessary to make a motion to leave the present policy in place, and Miller said that it was not necessary.
Kuether withdrew the motion.
Bartlett asked if it would work for the racing association to require all people who attend the races to be vaccinated, but Thomas said that would not work.
What about 60 percent, which would be 879 unvaccinated tickets? Thomas asked.
Rogers said he would second the motion if someone else would make the motion, but no one made a motion allowing 60 percent unvaccinated people in the grandstands for the Punky Manor race.
Since there were no motions on the floor, “the existing policy as we have it today stays in place,” Maves said, asking one last time if there was a motion anyone on the facilities committee wanted to make.
There were no motions, and since the facilities committee had reached the end of the agenda, Maves adjourned the meeting.