County Health Officer Hersil to County Board: ‘Large gatherings potentially ‘devastating’ to safety of community’
By Jalen Maki
Lincoln County Health Department Director and Health Officer Shelley Hersil told the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors that large gatherings could be “devastating” to the “safety of our community” and warned that COVID-19 is “extremely contagious” during the board’s meeting at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill on Tuesday, May 19.
She also outlined isolation and quarantine procedures for individuals who contract COVID-19 and those who come into contact with infected individuals.
National Guard providing assistance through June
Hersil said the National Guard will be assisting the Health Department with COVID-19 testing until the end of June.
“To figure out how to do community testing or outbreak testing after that is a challenge, and I’m not sure how our clinic healthcare or public healthcare will be able to do that,” she stated.
The National Guard collected over 75 specimens during COVID-19 testing at a Tomahawk senior living facility last week (See the story on Page 2).
Lincoln County COVID-19 cases had roughly 100 contacts
Hersil informed the board that there had been about 100 people in contact with the three individuals who had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, May 19. “Around 75” of those people were quarantined.
“And keep in mind, that’s with people staying safer at home,” she stated. “Now, with things opening up, I think you’re going to see more contacts with people who are (positive) cases. So, if someone has COVID, they’re going to be more mobile. They’re going to be at work, they’re going to be at church, they’re going to be at birthday parties. So, when we do our follow-up, we’re going to see more people exposed, which puts a lot more work on the health departments. I’m a little concerned about being able to have the capacity to handle what could come.”
Hersil noted that the second and third individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 in Lincoln County had been following the Safer at Home order guidelines, before becoming infected.
Isolation, quarantine are ‘legal orders’
Hersil said individuals who test positive for COVID-19 are put in isolation, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provide criteria on when that person can leave their home. The protocol usually involves ten days of isolation at home, followed by three days without a fever, and lastly being symptom-free.
“It is a legal order that they stay at home,” she stated. “And with that, their household is quarantined for 14 days, no matter what, and if the disease continues to spread in that household, you could be off of work for over a month.” Hersil stressed the potential “economic and work” impacts presented by becoming infected with or being exposed to COVID-19.
The Health Department also conducts contact tracing to find out where the isolated individual had been and who they had come into contact with. All of those people are contacted and quarantined for 14 days, also under a legal order, Hersil said.
When a board member raised concerns about ensuring those ordered to quarantine actually do so, Hersil explained that although public health departments are required to call quarantined and isolated individuals daily to report their body temperatures, it’s “an honor system to know that they’re staying home.”
According to Lincoln County Corporation Counsel Nancy Bergstrom; “Every attempt will be made to obtain voluntary compliance with public health communicable disease mitigation and containment directives.”
“If an individual refuses to comply with an isolation order, depending on all of the facts, a referral for legal action by the District Attorney or Corporation Counsel would be made by public health and/or law enforcement,” Bergstrom stated. “Either the District Attorney or I would assess the situation and decide whether legal action is warranted. If so, then the matter would be heard by a judge who could rule on what consequences could result from continued noncompliance.”
Public health agencies follow similar procedures with other diseases, such as pertussis, measles, and mumps, Hersil told the board.
Hersil said that although the Safer at Home order is gone, “the disease is still here,” and noted that the Health Department has the authority to put similar orders in place.
“We just don’t know how we could enforce orders right now,” she stated. “It’s not that easy to do that.”
‘Thousands’ could be exposed at large events, gatherings
Hersil stressed that COVID-19 is “very contagious,” and explained that it’s “very likely” people who come within six feet of an infected individual will also contract the virus.
“We haven’t been seeing that because people have been staying six feet apart and staying at home, but we’re going to see it more,” she stated.
Hersil said public health departments are having difficulties addressing large gatherings of people.
“We’re really having a hard time not having an order on that, because we know how devastating that can be for the safety of our community, and the effects on healthcare, worksites,” she said. “You could have thousands exposed at a large event.”
Hersil said the Health Department will continue to monitor cases, receive guidance from state and federal agencies, and provide guidance locally as “people are making their decisions, because there is no order (in place) right now.”