Milwaukee Health Department
Frank Zeidler Municipal Building in Milwaukee, home of the city's Health Department. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Public agencies face hostility and action based on conspiracy theories.

Wisconsin public health officials said they hoped the news that the president of the United States and one of the state’s US Senators were infected with the coronavirus would change attitudes and behaviors that have caused a surge of COVID-19 cases that has killed more people in a week than in any other time since the pandemic came to Wisconsin.

Instead, resistance from the public—and from President Donald Trump and Sen. Ron Johnson—has only become stronger, they said, even leading private citizens to post placards with wrong information based on conspiracy theories. And it’s leading more of those health officials to walk away from their jobs.

Public health recommendations such as wearing face masks when in public, maintaining social distancing and refraining from attending large gatherings have been met by growing resistance in recent weeks, health officers said, even as the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 makes Wisconsin among the nation’s hotspots for the virus

“I can’t remember a time when public servants were treated this way at a county level,” said Pierce County Health Director AZ Snyder, noting she has been the target of such behaviors by those angry at her advocacy of public health policy intended to reduce the spread of coronavirus. “It’s absolutely despicable.”

At least four county health directors in Wisconsin have resigned because of pressures against the COVID-19 public health measures they have been trying to put in place. Last week Shawano-Menominee County Health Officer Vicki Dantoin announced she is resigning after elected officials there rejected scientific evidence about the dangers of COVID-19 and efforts to contain it. 

In Lafayette County, Health Officer Sue Matye was reportedly fired in mid-September related to COVID-19 recommendations, and Milwaukee’s Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik resigned in early September after saying she received racist comments and other pushback for advocating for efforts to curb COVID-19. 

In Sauk County, Health Officer Tim Lawther recently resigned from that job, citing the growing politicization of COVID-19 health recommendations as the reason he’s leaving the county Oct. 14. Lawther said he and other public health officials in his department had come under increasing scrutiny in recent months simply for recommending actions needed to try to contain the virus. 

“I have personally been accused of being a liar, a communist, a fascist, and many others I will not repeat,” Lawther wrote in his resignation letter. “More troublesome, so has my team.”

Those resignations come as many Republicans, led by Trump, have questioned or outright spoken against the need for mandatory face masks, social distancing, or other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, saying such actions represent government overreach and an infringement upon personal freedoms rather than simple and necessary actions that would save lives. 

Trump announced Friday via Twitter he had tested positive for the virus and was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. On Monday his doctors announced he will be released, and the president urged people not to fear the virus even as a growing number of people who work in the White House continue to contract it

Wisconsin Republicans are working against COVID-19 regulations as well. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos filed a brief on behalf of the state Legislature supporting a lawsuit against Gov. Tony Evers’ extension of a statewide mask mandate. And on Monday Wisconsin US Sen. Ron Johnson said he would vote in-person to confirm Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett even if he’s still testing positive for coronavirus. He announced on Saturday he had tested positive for the virus. 

Continued criticisms of Wisconsin health officials’ efforts to control COVID-19 come as cases of the virus keep rising. On Monday the state reported 1,696 cases new cases, the lowest total in recent days but the 15th-highest daily figure out of 212 daily reports since the state Department of Health Services began recording virus data in March. 

Ninety-eight Wisconsin residents have died from the virus in the past seven days, a state record for a seven-day period. A total of 134,359 people in Wisconsin have tested positive for the COVID-19, and 1,381 have died.

The rise in COVID-19 cases threatens to overwhelm not only local health departments but hospitals’ capacity to treat patients afflicted with the virus. A dashboard maintained by the Wisconsin Hospital Association shows a record 782 hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients as of Monday, and a record 209 of those patients are critical enough to be in an intensive care unit. 

Hospital officials in the eastern part of the state have been especially hard-hit by the virus. A letter signed by 250 doctors in the region notes that virus-related hospitalizations in Green Bay have tripled recently. The letter calls for citizens to adhere to such measures as wearing masks and social distancing to reduce spread of COVID-19.  

“To say that providing care to these patients is severely straining our local hospitals, health care workers and health systems is a drastic understatement,” said Dr. Ashok Rai, CEO of Prevea Health and author of the letter.

Angry reaction to public health officers’ recommendations intended to curb the growth of COVID-19 has been happening since the virus appeared in Wisconsin in March and prompted the closure of school buildings and many businesses. During the summer health officers in Wisconsin told UpNorthNews they were receiving angry comments, including some that threatened violence, in response to recommendations they comply with rules intended to reduce virus outbreaks.

Those actions against public health efforts have become more commonplace since then, health officers said. For instance, they said, fewer people who test positive for the virus are responding to contract tracers’ phone calls informing them they have the virus and must quarantine themselves from others, part of the effort to slow the spread of the illness. Reports by business owners of patrons refusing to wear masks are on the rise, health officers and business owners said. 

“The pushback we are getting in public health, it’s a lot,” St. Croix County Health Officer Kelli Engen said. “I know we have opposition to the practices that our health department is doing. There seems to be more and more of that. But this is our role. This is what we do.”

In Eau Claire County, opposition to coronavirus safety measures came in another form on Monday, when Health Department officials announced that fake signs had been posted at some businesses saying they had been closed because of COVID-19 cases at those establishments. Cases of the virus had not been detected at those 50 or so locations, the health department said, and the signs were not the work of health department officials but of a group of citizens opposed to proposed city and county ordinances that would clarify the authority of local health officials to enforce an existing health order related to the virus. 

“We believe that this ‘spamming’ is part of a misinformation campaign related to the communicable

disease ordinances being considered by the City Council and County Board this month,” the release states.

Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said the signs appear to have been posted at businesses on Sunday. The fake-closure signs temporarily disrupted business at many locations, she said, resulting in cancelled appointments and other lost business. 

“That kind of fear and mistrust in our community is nothing we should want,” Giese said. 

Resistance to masks and other public health guidelines doesn’t just come from the general public, health officers said, but from local and state government officials in some locations who are opposed to such measures being made mandatory. Those pressures, combined with growing stresses of dealing with an ever-growing number of COVID-19 cases, are prompting public health workers to leave the profession, health officers said. 

“If this continues, it’s going to put the health of the public at even higher risk,” Snyder said. “That’s not something we can afford right now.”