The Rock County Jail has eased its COVID-19 procedures, causing concern among some inmates.
For many months, the jail placed all new inmates in an isolation unit for 14 days to make sure they exhibited no COVID-19 symptoms.
That practice ended July 1 as the jail transitions back to more normal procedures, jail Cmdr. Erik Chellevold said.
“That means they are putting other inmates at risk, and that’s not right,” said Juan Diego Rodriguez, an inmate who contacted The Gazette on Monday.
Chellevold said officials the plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions in the jail meets the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Rock County Public Health Department.
“We realize there comes a time when we have to start to re-open, based on the number of cases in the county and all the sources of information we have,” Chellevold said.
But Rodriguez said, “I’ve been here almost six months. I shouldn’t be around (new) inmates coming in.” He said he doesn’t want to carry the virus home to his children when he is released in about two weeks.
Rodriguez said other inmates are also worried, and many of them have health problems, such as diabetes or heart conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“We’re not trying to cause anybody problems. We’re trying to be safe,” Rodriguez said. “We understand a lot of people don’t care about us, so we’ve got to watch out for ourselves. A lot of us have kids, and we’re trying to get home to them.”
Chellevold said new inmates are still asked if they have had recent contact with anyone infected with COVID-19 and whether they have any symptoms. The jail will quarantine anyone who answers “Yes,” he said.
Another change in procedures concerns nonviolent misdemeanor suspects who have been released with a court date during the pandemic. Now, Chellevold said, those people are being jailed.
The county continues to place monitoring bracelets on work-release inmates that restrict them to their homes as an alternative to jailing them in the Huber dorm, Chellevold said.
Rodriguez said he and others were asleep when vaccinations were offered, so he didn’t get vaccinated.
But Chellevold said any inmate can get vaccinated. The jail waits until it has 10 inmates who want the shots and then calls HealthNet to administer them.
Rock County Health Officer Katrina Harwood said it’s true that placing unvaccinated people together increases the likelihood that the virus could be transmitted.
However, she said, “we are returning to a state of a little bit more normal and slowly returning to procedures that were in place prior to COVID.”
Harwood noted that many organizations have eased restrictions.
“We are at a place where we can make changes to those protocols,” she said.
The county recorded 31 new cases of COVID-19 between July 6 and 12, according to Harwood. No COVID-19 deaths were reported in that time, and the county has had no COVID-19 hospitalizations since July 2, she said.
Chellevold said jail staff still wear masks when interacting with inmates, and inmates have masks and are encouraged to wear them all the time, although many don’t. And COVID-19 cleaning procedures are still in place.
Chellevold said if the pandemic worsens again, the jail could return to its previous procedures.
From a chance to win the lottery to discounts on grocery tabs, Wisconsin residents who have yet to receive the COVID-19 vaccine are now able to get incentives for getting the shot in the arm.
A Wisconsin man played a key role in the development of a smartphone application and a web platform that brings together more than $168 million worth of nationwide incentives people can get if they get a COVID-19 vaccine as immunization rates continue to decline.
Bright Mind Enrichment and Schooling senior writer Neil Kleven of Milwaukee was central to outreach for the Vaccination Rewards project, according to BME Executive Director Craig Kaufman.
The app features an interactive map and framework that allows searching by location, provides estimated dollar values per reward and lets users navigate directly to rewarding companies’ websites. BME also updates rewards information on all major social media platforms.
“There are a lot of people out there who are unaware of the plethora of incentives available,” Kleven said. “I wanted to use my creative abilities to create content to promote the app and platform. I truly hope the word gets out about our service.”
The Vaccination Rewards platform aggregates all private and public offers and promotions on the Google Play App Store through the Vaccine Rewards App and through the vaccinationrewards .org website, which lists incentive programs by state.
Incentives can range from $10 off coupons at Meijer stores in Wisconsin or free tickets to a Chicago music series in Illinois.
The incentives app and website were created and are maintained by volunteers. The ultimate goal is to help get 70% of people nationwide vaccinated—a target President Joe Biden had hoped to reach by July 4.
In Rock County, 49.9% of residents have received at least one dose of a two-shot vaccine, and 46.9% of residents have completed vaccination, according to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data.
Weekly vaccination rates in Rock County peaked the week of April 4 when 9,810 doses were administered. Since then, vaccinations have dropped to 1,398 weekly doses in the county as of the week of July 4, DHS data shows.
The downward trend in vaccinations is also reflected across Wisconsin and countrywide. In Wisconsin, 50.8% of residents have received one dose and 48% have completed vaccination. Vaccine rates also peaked the week of April 4 in Wisconsin when 428,303 doses were administered. The most recent week available shows that 36,247 doses were administered over the July 4 weekly reporting period, per DHS data.
Nationwide, 55.5% of residents have received at least one dose and 48% have completed vaccination, CDC data shows.
A national environmental conservation group is calling for expanded transparency over risk management protocols used by federal authorities in oversight of chemical disasters, citing the Chemtool fire that burned for several days last month as a prime example why.
Last week, affected Rockton residents provided testimony at the Environmental Protection Agency’s public listening session regarding the EPA’s Risk Management Plan rules.
The Sierra Club, an environmental activism collective with more than 3.8 million members, thinks the circumstances of the Chemtool fire were not covered by the risk management rules and should have been.
“Chemtool is the poster child for why the risk management prevention program for chemical safety must be expanded,” Jane Williams, national clean air team chair with the Sierra Club, said.
“It’s very clear that first responders were completely unprepared for this fire. A common-sense risk management prevention program would have helped prevent the Chemtool disaster and would have protected first responders and the frontline community. We need to expand the risk management program to include facilities like Chemtool so that these disasters are prevented and so that communities are prepared when they do happen.”
The rules around risk management are set up to help protect residents living near industrial sites. In 2017, the EPA implemented a chemical disaster rule that includes provisions to protect worker and community safety from storage, use and accidental release of hazardous substances.
The rule was walked back by former President Donald Trump’s administration in 2019, and the federal rules have since been identified as an “action for review” by the current administration of President Joe Biden after he issued executive action on the matter.
Rockton residents and local activists say the mitigation efforts in response to the June 14 explosion at Chemtool prove that the risk management and prevention program must be expanded and improved.
“With no risk management prevention and response plan in place, our community has been left in an information void,” said Sierra Club Illinois Co-Chair of the Northwest River Valley Group Steven Hall. “We’re left asking what chemicals are in our air, water and soil? What about my kids and pets playing outside? Can I eat my vegetables? Why am I getting headaches and bloody noses?”
On July 9, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and the Illinois EPA announced samples collected at the site have confirmed air and water quality have not been affected by the Chemtool fire and the efforts to extinguish it.
The state environmental agency, with help from the Illinois National Guard, took ash, wipe, runoff and river samples from around the site of the fire and from the immediate area. All but one sample, a wipe sample located in close proximity to the Chemtool property, tested below the residential exposure limit.
The agency also collected samples from various locations in the community water supply after the fire. Each of the wells used as water sources for Rockton residents was sampled along with the finished water storage tank located adjacent to the fire. All samples were found to be in compliance with applicable drinking water and groundwater standards. No negative effects to the community water supply were identified.
Water sampling was conducted to determine whether runoff from the incident resulted in water quality impacts to the Rock River. Only one sample on the Rock River exceeded Illinois Pollution Control Board water quality standards, which has been documented by Illinois EPA. The increased level of carbon disulfide would decrease as it runs downriver.
“As our investigation continues, Illinois EPA remains committed to community residents and local leaders as we look to the remediation phase of this devastating fire,” Illinois EPA Director John Kim said. “Illinois EPA is also working closely with Attorney General (Kwame) Raoul’s office to ensure the full impact of this fire is documented and the company implements an approved plan to remove any hazardous material from the site.”
The Illinois Department of Public Health has brought in experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to augment the efforts of the local health department to monitor and identify potential health effects as a result of the fire.
A class-action lawsuit filed by Rockton residents is pending in Winnebago County Circuit Court, and the IEPA has referred its case to the Illinois attorney general’s office for legal action against Lubrizol, Chemtool’s parent company. The referral by the IEPA cites violations of the Illinois Environmental Protection Act and Illinois Pollution Control Board regulations related to chemical fire and release of pollutants to the atmosphere.
All sample results and further descriptions of sampling are available on the Illinois EPA website at bit.ly/2U12T9K.
After a lively board discussion and public comment period, Milton School Board members approved changes to the district’s COVID-19 protocols for the 2021-22 academic year during their meeting Monday night.
Superintendent Rich Dahman presented the proposed changes to the board, which included a return to typical-sized classrooms, prepandemic locker use and two-way hallways, an end to mandatory wiping down of surfaces throughout the school day, and new contact tracing and quarantine procedures, among other changes.
“We will continue to monitor the situation during the spread of COVID variants and if those situations change,” Dahman explained. “We want to make sure we’re very clear that there may be some change in the situation and we certainly want to be able to adjust to those changes.”
Board member Leslie Hubert had concerns about the quarantine procedure if a student contracted COVID-19.
According to the proposal, unvaccinated students and vaccinated students showing COVID-19 symptoms must quarantine if they are a close contact of someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19 as required by the Rock County Public Health Department. Proof of vaccination is required for asymptomatic contacts to stay out of quarantine. The standard length of a COVID-19 quarantine will be 10 days, but students with a negative COVID-19 test on day six of a quarantine may return after seven days. If students cannot isolate from a positive case, quarantine may exceed 10 days.
Hubert worried these practices could cause division between students.
“My concern is with quarantining and contact tracing,” she said. “I don’t feel that vaccine status should be a factor in quarantining. If we’re going to ask students to quarantine when showing symptoms, it should be the same for every student.
“Why would six days be better for a vaccinated person versus an unvaccinated person given that there have been cases where vaccinated people have contracted COVID? My concern would be creating that division and highlighting those who have been vaccinated or unvaccinated.”
Hubert tried to make a motion to amend the wording of the proposal but was denied by board President Michael Hoffman because he said it would “change the nature of the motion that has been made.”
Board member Rick Mullen said it wouldn’t be fair to make asymptomatic, vaccinated students quarantine because of a close contact because families chose to have students vaccinated to avoid such a scenario.
Hubert then asked Mullen if allowing them not to quarantine would “elevate” vaccinated students over unvaccinated ones, to which Mullen said he was not, which elicited a loud response from those watching the meeting.
In the end, the board voted 6-1 to approve the changes, effective Aug. 1. Hubert was the only “no” vote.
Before the discussion, many parents voiced their opinion during the public comment period.
“I feel like our administration has brought us to the 10-yard line but needs to push us to the end zone on these protocols,” Tracy Hannah, a parent of a son going into Milton Middle School, said. “The area I truly have questions and concerns with is the contact tracing, quarantine bullet point that reads simply ‘RCHD requires contact tracing and quarantine for close contacts.’ The protocol change document does not state Milton’s position on this. It is just the statement, nothing more.”
Another parent urged the board to take its time with the decision.
“Each of you seven board members spend a fair amount of time on this board,” John Dummer said. “ If you do vote on this tonight, can you say with 100% conviction that you are ready to go? If the answer’s no, I ask that you do whatever you need to do to push this off to next week. It’s far too important for our kids and our community to vote before you are ready.”