Data shows COVID-19 is spreading more quickly through Rock County at gatherings and parties than in schools, said the county’s epidemiologist.
The number of school-aged children, ages 4 to 17, who have tested positive for the coronavirus has soared since school reopened.
As of Tuesday, 192 school-aged children had been infected with the virus since Sept. 1, Zupan said.
That’s a 40% increase from the 137 school-aged kids who tested positive over five months from April to August, according to data from the Rock County Public Health Department.
COVID-19 activity has been increasing in Rock County since the beginning of September, the same time schools reopened across the county.
Epidemiologist Nick Zupan said cases are not spreading widely through schools and classrooms, but rather kids are often contracting the virus outside of school and then exposing small numbers of classmates.
“I don’t know with schools being open if there is some kind of change in mentality in terms of people feeling more relaxed about getting together or being outside of the house,” Zupan said.
Michelle Rose-Barajas, a psychologist with Mercyhealth, said stress continues to build amid the pandemic, and that has fueled feelings of anger, exhaustion, depression, anxiety and other emotions.
It is important to monitor the number of cases in school-aged children, Zupan said.
Research shows children have a higher potential for spreading the disease compared to adults because children carry larger viral loads in their nasal cavities, Zupan said.
That means children could easily spread it to people who are at higher risk of serious illness, such as seniors and people with other health conditions, Zupan said.
It is possible for children to become seriously ill from the virus, although it is less likely than in older age groups, Zupan said.
To help parents prepare for back-to-school season, The Gazette asked Mercyhealth pediatrician Kristen Goelzer about the health risks associated with kids and COVID-19.
Data shows children in Rock County, so far, have been more likely to contract the virus at an event outside of school than in the classroom, Zupan said.
“I was surprised when looking at our data that so many people are reporting going to parties and gatherings,” Zupan said.
People who have tested positive for COVID-19 have largely reported having gone to family get-togethers, weddings, parties, restaurants, bars and other places of gathering, Zupan said.
It is difficult to know exactly where cases are spreading because cases have overloaded the county’s contact tracing abilities and many people have not fully answered questions about their close contacts and whereabouts, Zupan said.
About 75% of people contacted by the health department have not fully answered questions about whereabouts, contacts and occupations, Zupan said.
Zupan was unsure if people are refusing to answer questions or if some questions are not being asked to save time.
Contact tracers have struggled to keep up. County officials in recent weeks have encouraged people who test positive to quickly reach out to everyone with whom they have recently been in close contact.
Several COVID-19 records have been shattered in the last week, including numbers of new cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations.
There are 976 active and confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Rock County, up 18 from Tuesday and up 356 from Oct. 1, according to health department data.
Sixty-one new cases were reported Wednesday, bringing the county’s all-time total to 3,538.
One new death was reported Wednesday for a total of 37 since March. The new death occurred Sunday, according to state data.
The county has not updated its hospitalization count since Monday, when hospitalizations hovered at 30, the highest they have ever been.
Of new cases reported Wednesday, 44% were positive.
Positivity rate—the percentage of tests that are positive—is used to show how much disease activity is in an area, Zupan said.
The county’s reported positivity rate is a per-person rate, meaning it shows only the first positive or first negative result received by an individual, Zupan said.
A positivity rate above 10% is “concerning,” Zupan said.
Zupan said it is important to look at all the different pieces of data available to get a good grip on how the disease is impacting a given region.
Counselors in Janesville schools have been busy since school doors opened again this fall.
The number of students who need services hasn’t necessarily increased, but mental health issues seem amplified for those who are seeking help, said Julie Konstanz, a school counselor at Franklin Middle School.
“I think it’s about normal for the amount of people we’re seeing, but the issues that are coming to us are a little more significant than they have been in the past,” Konstanz said.
Many students are struggling with anxiety, fueled by uncertainty about school and whether they’ll have to switch to virtual learning. Others are more irritable and have shorter fuses but can’t explain why they feel that way, she said.
Some students feel hopeless amid the negative rhetoric surrounding the pandemic, Black Lives Matter conversations and the election.
Current safety protocols also make school counselors’ jobs harder.
Masks can shield facial expressions that indicate a student might be struggling, and it’s harder to build personal connections in socially distanced rooms. At Franklin, open-door policies have given way to limits on the number of students allowed in the office at one time.
“That’s been a really unique challenge this year, and I think one of the things that we as teachers do is really going above and beyond ... to try to use our tone of voice, body postures and all that to be more welcoming,” Konstanz said. “It is difficult for the students, I think.”
She said counselors are trying to be proactive about checking in with students. In-person instruction has helped, allowing them to reconnect with students who might have struggled alone in spring and summer when schools were closed.
“We really are trying to help them find some healthy social connections—whether it’s somebody here at school, a good friend, a family member or family friend—and helping them figure out ways of reaching out to them,” she said.
“We’re also working with them on developing some coping skills and really starting to explore what are some things that they can do and say to themselves to help them get through some of the rough spots.”
District officials have reallocated some administrative work so counselors can focus on taking care of students, Konstanz said.
Kim Peerenboom, the district’s director of pupil services, said district officials have not fielded mental-health concerns from parents or students that are “out of the ordinary” during the pandemic.
School counselors are often the first point of contact for students who are struggling. While they can meet with students one-on-one or lead group discussions, they also can contact parents and refer students to outside agencies. In urgent cases, they can involve Rock County Crisis Intervention staff.
One resource district officials have leaned on is the satellite counseling offices operated by HOPE, a child and family counseling service in Janesville, and Mercyhealth counselors. The satellite offices are spaces inside the schools that give students a private place to video-conference with their mental health teams or counselors.
Students work with student services staff to get passes to leave class for virtual therapy. Parents also can drop into the virtual conferences without having to leave work.
“We are allowing that in order for our students to maintain their schedules with our outside providers, and that’s been successful,” Peerenboom said.
The district has seen more outside health care providers offer virtual counseling for students, she said. The availability of that counseling is determined by a child’s family health insurance.
Students who believe they need counseling fill out a sheet of paper indicating how urgent their need is, and district staff set up meetings or check-ins. Other students have resorted to setting up appointments by email, which has worked well, Konstanz said.
District staff also continue to integrate social and emotional curriculum into class advisory periods, a practice done even in normal school years.
That curriculum is tailored to the age group, Peerenboom said. Elementary school counselors talk about bullying and other topics that apply to younger students. Middle school and high school counselors offer education during homerooms or advisory periods but also try to identify students who need more individual help.
Konstanz said the district has done a good job of ensuring that students’ basic needs are met.
However, school counselors are not the same as mental health professionals, Peerenboom said.
“Obviously, our school counselors know warning signs, and they know general interventions, and they know how to connect people with the agencies,” she said. “But the type of therapy someone with significant mental health needs has is not going to be able to be provided through a school counselor or a school social worker.”
Still, Konstanz said school counselors will continue to be there to help students navigate a challenging year.
“I think that it’s much more complex right now because there are so many things that are outside of everybody’s control,” she said. “We want to be reassuring of students, but we also don’t want to make promises that we don’t know for sure can come true.”
What school counselors can do, she said, is “really reassuring them that they’re not alone, that we’re in this together and telling them you’ve got people that want to be there with you and help carry the load for a while. That’s what we can do.”
A Wisconsin judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked an order from Gov. Tony Evers’ administration limiting the number of people who can gather in bars, restaurants and other indoor places, a move that comes as the state breaks records for new coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations.
The Democratic governor’s order, issued by the Evers-appointed state health secretary Andrea Palm last week, limited the number of customers in many indoor establishments to 25% of capacity. Gatherings in indoor spaces without an occupancy limit were limited to 10 people. The order does not apply to colleges, schools, churches, polling locations, political rallies and outdoor venues.
The Tavern League of Wisconsin, the powerful lobbying group for the state’s 5,000 bars, restaurants and taverns, argued that the capacity limits amounted to “defacto closure.” It said that Palm didn’t have the legal authority to issue the order, which instead should have gone through the Republican-led Legislature’s rule-making process.
A GOP-controlled legislative committee Monday met to begin the process of creating the rule, which would then allow the Legislature to strike it down.
Sawyer County Circuit Judge John Yackel, who blocked the order a day after the Tavern League of Wisconsin sued, set a court date for Monday. He said the hearing will give attorneys for the Evers administration a chance to argue why the order should not be put on hold while the lawsuit plays out.
Evers’ spokeswoman, Britt Cudaback, said the ruling would be challenged.
“This is a dangerous decision that leaves our state without a statewide effort to contain this virus,” she said.
Eating at a restaurant where seating capacity is not reduced and tables are not spaced at least 6 feet apart is in the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “highest risk” category for contracting COVID-19. By comparison, the lowest risk is purchasing food for take-out or curbside pickup, according to the CDC.
Evers put the new limits in place through Nov. 6 as the virus is surging across Wisconsin. The state opened a field hospital near Milwaukee on Wednesday to handle an overflow of patients from hospitals, which treated a record-high 1,017 COVID-19 patients on Wednesday. That broke the previous day’s record of 950 patients.
The state also broke records Tuesday for daily new confirmed cases and deaths.
Deb Standridge, CEO of the Milwaukee field hospital, said she has been fielding calls from hospitals around the state about taking patients but that they weren’t expected to arrive until today at the earliest. The temporary facility, which was built in April and later mothballed, has 50 beds but can rapidly double that number and has an overall capacity of 530 patients, she said.
“I cannot give you a number because we are still having those conversations and hospitals are making those decisions,” Standridge said. She added that patients in Milwaukee will be near the end of their medical care and likely be within three to six days of going home.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which months ago made preliminary plans for a second field hospital in Madison and looked at other sites around the state, has been called in to “relook at those plans” in case a second or third facility is needed, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health.
“It has been our fervent hope that we would never need to use the alternative care facility,” she said. “But in a crisis such as a pandemic, we must prepare for the worst and then work to try and prevent it from coming to pass.”
To date, more than 158,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and 1,536 have died in Wisconsin since the pandemic started.
Democratic lawmakers said the attempt to undo the capacity limits order would hurt the state’s pandemic response.
“Make no mistake, if this dangerous decision stands, Wisconsin will be choosing full bars over full classrooms,” tweeted state Sen. LaTonya Johnson, of Milwaukee. “What a pathetic set of priorities to teach our children.”
Earlier this year, the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court ended Evers’ safer-at- home order. Republican lawmakers are currently suing to end the governor’s statewide mask mandate, arguing as the Tavern League has done in this lawsuit that the order exceeded Evers’ authority. A judge on Monday upheld the mask mandate, saying the Legislature has the power to strike it down if it wants to.
Evers has argued that Republicans are making it more difficult for the state to deal with the pandemic.
The Tavern League, the Sawyer County Tavern League and the Flambeau Forest Inn in the village of Winter brought the lawsuit. It argues that the Flambeau Forest Inn would be forced to limit its capacity to 10 people under the state order, which would include five customers and five employees needed to operate the restaurant.
“Flambeau could not operate profitably under these conditions and would be forced to discontinue its business operations,” the lawsuit said.
Most kids don’t grow up wanting to be 911 dispatchers.
Rather, their imaginations often fixate on being firefighters or police officers.
Kathy Sukus knows that. But she wants to change the perception of dispatchers, who she says play a crucial role in public safety.
Promoting the importance of dispatchers also addresses a more immediate problem for the Rock County Communications Center.
Sukus, the center’s director, said the center has had trouble with staff turnover in recent years, something that is happening to 911 centers nationwide. What might make the problem in Rock County different, she said, is that the wages are lower than in nearby 911 centers.
“This is as important a public safety position as police and fire,” Sukus said. “Because if we don’t get it right, it affects the entire outcome of the call sometimes.
“So that’s why I just take it to heart. I have been here since the place opened,” she said. “And I don’t want our level of service to be affected because we can’t get good people applying.”
Sukus asked Rock County Administrator Josh Smith to raise the starting wage for a telecommunicator—a person who works as a call taker and a dispatcher—to $21.50 per hour from $19.85. The county board will consider Smith’s proposal.
Smith told The Gazette last week that the county could use new public utility shared revenue from the Alliant Energy power plant in the town of Beloit to boost wages and hire a new training employee at the 911 center.
Under a proposed 2021 budget, Rock County’s budget will grow by a beefy 8.8 percent, in large part because of bigger paybacks expected on county loans and a slew of major projects to brick and mortar county facilities and roads.
The training employee would mean the center wouldn’t have to pull supervisors away from their normal work to train new employees, Sukus said. Those supervisors also take calls when the center is short-staffed.
She hopes raising the wage will attract more attention from applicants who might have stopped considering that career path because of the pay.
The job isn’t a typical Monday-to-Friday position, Sukus said, and workers can miss holidays, weekends or family events. But she said it’s an important job that deserves a pay boost, which could help the center compete with other types of jobs that are taking away candidates.
She said surrounding agencies in Jefferson County, Whitewater and Kenosha pay more than Rock County currently does. And although it has a higher cost of living, Dane County pays “a good $5 or $6 more an hour starting than us,” she said.
The Rock County Communications Center employs 32 telecommunicators and four workers who take calls without doing dispatching, Sukus said. Recently, it has lost an average of eight employees per year.
Sukus said Rock County’s turnover rate is about 3% to 5% higher than the national average.
The center’s staffers deserve more pay because they handle more than some dispatch centers, Sukus said.
For example, she said Rock County’s center is the only accredited agency in Wisconsin, and it has held that status for more than 20 years. The center dispatches for the entire county, which is not the case for all other centers.
The issue is important to Rock County residents because callers don’t want burned-out or overwhelmed employees answering their emergency calls, she said.
Sukus, who is in her 33rd year, has seen other agencies suffer from far higher turnover rates.
With an eye on the long-term future, she doesn’t want Rock County to reach more critical levels. She said she doesn’t want to retire and leave the place worse off than when she started.
“It’s one of those positions that people forget about when things go right. They forget about us. It’s only when there’s a problem that we come to light, and I just don’t want that for our county,” she said.
“This is where I grew up. It’s important to me that we get excellent service and that these guys are treated the way they should be for the hard job that they have.”