Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, extended the statewide mask mandate and public health emergency declaration for 60 days in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases driven largely by college-aged adults.
The mask mandate requires everyone ages 5 and up to wear a face covering indoors, except in a private residence or if an individual is only in the presence of household members. Other exceptions are also granted such as while eating or drinking, when communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing and while sleeping.
Face coverings are strongly recommended in other settings when physical distancing can't be maintained, including outdoors, according to the order.
“We are seeing an alarming increase in cases across our state, especially on campus," Evers said in a news release. "We need folks to start taking this seriously, and young people especially — please stay home as much as you are able, skip heading to the bars, and wear a mask whenever you go out."
The 18-24 age group is experiencing a COVID-19 case rate five times higher than any other group, and the timing corresponds with students returning to college campuses, according to the governor's emergency declaration.
In-person classes were suspended for two weeks at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and students were told to shelter in place in response to recent positivity rates and active cases of COVID-19. That announcement came Friday evening, Sept. 18.
The UWRF online COVID-19 dashboard reported 133 positive cases out of 1,531 on-campus tests conducted Aug. 26-Sept. 18.
“The current surge among young people is concerning, but it is important to remember that this increase in cases is not confined to college campuses,” Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said Tuesday. “Students come to these campuses from across the state, and we worry about the effect their return from an area with a high infection rate could have on their home communities."
Pierce County was at the "Tipping Point" risk level as of Monday — the highest level based on metrics in Harvard University’s Path to Zero framework for suppressing the spread of COVID-19. Public Health staff is unable to contact new cases and close contacts within 24 hours, according to the county COVID-19 dashboard.
Pierce County Public Health expected an increase in cases of the respiratory disease when school resumed, but not at the levels the county is experiencing, Health Officer AZ Snyder said.
“We’re going to need more than the usual that Pierce County is used to during the pandemic to turn this one around,” Snyder said, such as canceling activities that involve congregations of young people.
River Falls School Board addressed the issue Monday night. Though there were no recommendations to change school operations, Superintendent Jamie Benson told board members the district could consider at some point keeping seventh-12th graders home instead of in school two days per week, potentially easing contact tracing work for the county.
"We aren't there yet," Benson said. "I just wanted to say that's an option on the table for consideration as we move forward."
There were 49 students out with COVID-19 symptoms as of Sept. 21 and another 65 because of close contact or due to a household member having symptoms or awaiting test results, according to a River Falls School District status report. Fewer than five students have tested positive and/or have returned to school.
River Falls School Board President Stacy Johnson Myers implored the community to be responsible and wear masks for the sake of young students.
"It's hard to be an online university student," she said. "It's a whole lot harder to be a student learning to read online."
The Wisconsin single-day record for new COVID-19 cases was set Sept. 18 with 2,533 confirmed cases, according to the state health department. The seven day average for daily new cases was 1,791 as of Monday.
Locally there were 72 active COVID-19 cases in Pierce County and 233 in St. Croix County on Sept. 21, according to county health departments.