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Wisconsin health officials urge masking in 7 counties with high COVID levels

Lauren Sigfusson
A sign in Milwaukee requiring masks.

Wisconsin health officials are urging people in seven counties with high COVID-19 levels to wear masks indoors, and they’re encouraging precautions statewide.

The counties that meet the CDC definition for a high COVID burden are Racine, Kenosha, Vernon, Monroe, La Crosse, Rusk and Barron. Most other Wisconsin counties, including Milwaukee, are in the medium category.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services Chief Medical Officer Ryan Westergaard told reporters Monday what the CDC’s definition of a high COVID level in a community means.

"There’s two things: there’s enough community transmission that the number of cases is high and there’s a larger number of people with COVID-19 in our hospitals," Westergaard said. "So that’s intended to get the public’s attention and say we need to work a little harder than we have been to prevent transmission."

One way to prevent transmission is to wear masks in public indoor settings.

Westergaard said omicron subvariants are driving Wisconsin’s current COVID increase. Omicron was the variant that caused a surge of cases in December and January.

"Omicron and its descendants become more and more transmissible," he said. "And that’s what’s changed the epidemic in an important way. Being in the same room as someone who is infected is now a risk factor. It’s no longer you’re within 6 feet for 15 minutes. They’re so easily transmitted that just being the same indoor space is a risk factor."

Westergaard said waning immunity among the thousands of people infected with omicron in the winter could also be contributing to the current rise in COVID cases. He said immunity appears to wane after five months.

The U.S. recently reached the staggering milestone of one million COVID deaths. To prevent more deaths, Westergaard encouraged people to get up-to-date on their COVID vaccinations. He said anyone at high risk who gets COVID should talk to their health care provider about antiviral medications, which are widely available in Wisconsin.

Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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