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Health care professionals ask Sauk County elected officials to take COVID prevention measures
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Health care professionals ask Sauk County elected officials to take COVID prevention measures

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Spc. Travis Bolbt, West Bend, of the Wisconsin National Guard takes a nose swab in mid-October at the COVID-19 community testing event at the Sauk County Fairgrounds in Baraboo.

A letter signed by 43 health care professionals from Sauk Prairie Healthcare asked local leaders to adopt COVID-19 prevention strategies as examples for communities throughout the county, but while county and municipal policies are being implemented, officials have been reticent to issue mandates for the general public.

“We are asking for your public support of prevention strategies: face coverings, physical distancing, frequent hand-washing, and avoiding large gatherings,” professionals wrote in the letter specifically aimed toward county supervisors. “As a community leader, you can have a significant impact helping our communities adopt prevention strategies while keeping our local businesses vibrant.”

The Sauk County Board of Supervisors voted in August that it does not have the authority to mandate face mask wearing, based on advice from their legal counsel. They took the stance that the county health director does not have more authority than state Secretary-designee of the Department of Health Services Andrea Palm, who had COVID-19 orders overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a challenge from legislative Republicans.

Board Chair Tim McCumber said Friday that home rule, or the general understanding that cities and villages have power to govern themselves while counties across Wisconsin are limited, is what keeps the board from putting any more stringent regulations in place regarding COVID-19 prevention strategies.

“We really can’t, that’s the challenge,” McCumber said.

But the city level has made little progress as well, with Baraboo looking to the county or at state representatives to pass a law that its citizens would then follow.

Interim City Administrator Ed Geick serves on the emergency management task force meant to deal with COVID-19 as the pandemic continues.

“We have been trying to follow state guidelines,” Geick said. “Unless Sauk County takes another step, there’s not much we can do.”

As the city has shared its hesitance to pass a mandate without county and state guidance, McCumber said that one entity looking to another to make a decision is part of why none have been put in place.

“It’s everybody’s punting back and forth,” he said.

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Both the county and the city have policies in place for their own buildings and employees. Baraboo officials shut down the municipal building Wednesday after Geick said an employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The building was set to reopen Monday, pending test results of other employees who were in close contact with that person.

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McCumber said the county had a similar issue recently, which prompted them to reconsider a more strict working from home schedule rather than hosting full staff at the West Square Building. Capacity metrics released by the health department encourage the use of technology rather than having staff in the building have been implemented, though McCumber said in order to provide services for the county, they still need people there during the day.

“We’re actually probably going above and beyond the health metrics,” McCumber said. “We just can’t afford to be shut down.”

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Other measures are being adopted; some supervisors are being allowed to attend remotely, cube-shaped polyglass dividers were installed at the seat of each of the 31 supervisors in their meeting room as of Tuesday and members of the public are allowed to make a public comment from another room a floor lower rather than coming into the crowded meeting room. The majority of board supervisors now wear facial coverings, a practice that had not been followed until recently. McCumber said the three members who continue to not wear them have claimed medical exemptions.

“We thought that would alleviate the pressure in the room,” McCumber said.

Part of the letter from medical staff was to encourage those examples as a way to ensure the public sees how to engage in preventive behavior. McCumber said he wasn’t sure how the county could be doing more, given that the Sauk County Health Department has been working continuously to release information and prevention strategies are listed on the county website as well as social media posts.

“What is it we’re not doing?” McCumber said. “We’re kind of fighting public perception. They’re tired of it.”

Still, others like the health care workers have been hoping to see more from elected leaders.

“I wish the county and state would take more action because what we’re doing right now is clearly not working,” Geick said, adding that the task force has resumed weekly meetings. “It’s increasing and we may have to try to take some other steps. … The lack of city initiative is telling.”

Baraboo Common Council members discussed the possibility of mandating face mask wearing within the city in late August, just a week after the county voted down the prospect, but tabled the measure when Gov. Tony Evers ordered a statewide mask mandate. No other measures have been considered by council members to encourage prevention strategies or limit the number of people who can gather, even as holidays approach.

Baraboo Fire Chief Kevin Stieve, who also serves as part of the Emergency Management team for the city, introduced the prospect of returning to all virtual meetings during the council meeting Tuesday night as a way to mitigate exposure given the increase in COVID-19 cases throughout the county and the state. Council members were split on the idea, Geick said.

Council President Joel Petty said he and fellow member Scott Sloan seemed to favor in-person meetings while allowing those who prefer to check in on their computer to stay home. Petty said council members who were concerned could make that decision for themselves. That type of choice is what the medical professionals who signed the letter pointed to as an example for the general public.

“We recognize the economic impact these prevention measures have on our local community businesses, particularly distancing measures and avoiding large gatherings,” the letter states. “But such gatherings are where the majority of COVID19 transmission occurs. The more widespread our use of prevention strategies, the more we can reduce transmission, allowing our communities to thrive.”

Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.

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