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Chippewa County Public Health Department criticizes local school districts' "voluntary quarantine" systems

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COVID-19

Chippewa County Public Health Director Angela Weideman heavily criticized two area school districts that have adopted a “voluntary quarantine” system, which allows children who were in close contact with a COVID-19-positive person to remain in school if no symptoms develop.

“I have many concerns about students who are close contacts attending school near others,” Weideman said Thursday during her weekly COVID-19 press conference. “I do anticipate we will see more spread in the (school) buildings related to that.”

The New Auburn School District moved to a voluntary quarantine system earlier in September. Last Friday, Chippewa Falls Schools Superintendent Jeff Holmes announced the district was switching to voluntary quarantines, effective on Monday, Sept. 27. Weideman said both districts informed her of their decisions before it was publicly announced.

“I do not recommend or support the decision,” she said. “These decisions endanger the safety of others.”

The voluntary quarantine policies in those districts comes as COVID-19 cases among juveniles continues to climb. Roughly 33.7% of all active cases in the county are among children, up slightly from 33.1% last week, and that is up from 26.3% two weeks ago and 23.5% three weeks ago. Nationwide, pediatric cases are up 240% since July.

Weideman also is concerned about possibly other effects of the policy; many children who would have gotten tested so they could quickly return to school during a quarantine won’t get tested under the new system. She said that will make it harder to locate where the virus is and combat it.

“I cannot urge parents enough to keep ill children at home,” she said.

As public health director, state statute allows her to enforce quarantines during an outbreak, she said. She is exploring her options on how the county could enforce those rules, she said.

“Internally, I’m working very closely with our county administrator and corporation counsel,” Weideman said.

In his letter last week, Holmes encouraged parents to have their children get a COVID-19 test within six days if they child was exposed to someone with the virus. However, Holmes is not requiring testing.

“I do not have the authority to mandate a test, but schools do,” Weideman said. People should get tested three to five days after an exposure, she added.

Weideman said families can obtain a rapid test at many locations in the area, including UW-Eau Claire, Prevea health system, or Walgreens.

At least two other districts in western Wisconsin — Mondovi and Menomonie — have also gone to voluntary quarantines, she said. Other districts are already discussing it, she added.

However, none of the 10 Chippewa County residents currently hospitalized with virus-related symptoms are youths, she said. Roughly 85% of hospital beds in medical centers across northwest Wisconsin are now in use, including 97% of ICU beds. Also, about 13% of ventilators in the region are being used.

Since April 5, when vaccines became widely available to the general public, roughly 81.3% of people in the county hospitalized with virus-related symptoms were not vaccinated, she said.

Cases up again

In the past week, 359 Chippewa County residents tested positive from 1,059 tests given (33.9% positivity rate). That is up from last week, when 303 people tested positive from 1,004 tests (30.1%). That is also up from 158 positive cases from 391 tests (37.8%) two weeks ago, and also up from 256 positive cases from 663 tests (38.6%) three weeks ago.

Five Chippewa County residents have died from virus-related symptoms in the past week, bringing Chippewa County’s total to 109 deaths. All but three of the deceased were unvaccinated.

The county’s vaccination rate has steadily increased, now at 52.3% of all county residents, including 63.2% of all adults, having at least one shot. In the past week, 509 doses were given, down from 748 last week, and also down fro 618 doses given two weeks ago.

Many people are now eligible for a third “booster” Pfizer shot. In general, they need to be elderly, have underlying health symptoms, or be a critical worker. Weideman’s office does not distribute the Pfizer vaccine. She said that if someone who does not fit the criteria for a third shot attempts to get one, they will likely be turned away.

Because of the high number of new cases in the county in recent weeks, Chippewa County remains at a severe risk level, with a recommendation of limiting indoor gatherings to 15 people and outdoor gatherings to 50 people.

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