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At least 13 people who attended a weekend hockey tourney in Ashland in late June now have tested positive for COVID-19.
The patients stretch from Minnesota to Marquette, Mich., where one of them returned home and coached Little League baseball teams, forcing the entire league to shut down.
Just one local patient had tested positive as of Friday, but participants in the tournament stayed in local hotels, ate in local restaurants and came into contact with any number of local people, and health officials fear more local cases could result.
"These larger gatherings clearly are not a good idea right now," said Sara Wartman, public health officer for Bayfield County where the local patient connected to the private tourney held at the Bay Area Civic Center lives.
Messages left at the Bay Area Civic Center seeking comment for this story were not returned. The Ashland Area Youth Hockey Association posted a notice on its Facebook page saying it was aware of the outbreak connected to the tourney and saying the association was not connected to the event.
Local health officials in the Bay Area started contact tracing after the Bayfield County patient tested positive for COVID-19. Although the person could have contracted the illness elsewhere in the community, Wartman said, the timing of the person's symptoms and the fact the person had attended a large gathering led health officers to believe the tournament was the likely source.
After contacting counterparts in Michigan, local health officials learned that some people at the event had been ill when they attended.
"What those symptoms were we don't know," Wartman said.
Nine of the patients connected to the tournament were from Marquette County, Mich., where Health Officer Jerry Messana said officials still are tracing the contacts those patients had before and after the trip to determine how many more people might have been exposed. At least one of those patients
was involved in the local Marquette Little League, but Messana did not know how many kids he might have come into contact with before the league shut down because of the exposure.
"What we know now is there was travel related to that tournament and that's about it," he said Friday morning.
Wartman said that in addition to the nine people in Michigan, three more from Minnesota who attended the tournament have tested positive, and test results are pending for others, so the number of cases could very well rise.
As of Friday morning, Wartman said Bayfield County had three cases and Ashland County two related to "large gatherings," but did not say that all of them were linked to the hockey event.
Wartman said the Health Department contacted eight different hockey teams, plus Ashland-area hotels and restaurants, to alert them that patients might have carried the virus to their businesses; she did not disclose to the Daily Press which businesses were involved.
Mark Gutteter, owner of The Alley restaurant in Ashland, confirmed that people who attended the tournament ate at his business during the tournament weekend.
The Ashland and Bayfield health departments recommended that employees who waited on those customers quarantine themselves for 14 days, he said. As a result 11 workers are at home and The Alley is closed — possibly through the weekend — because of staffing issues.
However, Gutteter is confident in the restaurant's cleaning and sanitation program. He also said all of his workers wear masks, which hopefully will prevent the transmission of COVID-19 to keep them, customers and the community safe.
Although Wartman hesitated to reveal the affected Ashland businesses, Iron County, which has eight confirmed cases, has gone ahead and identified two Hurley businesses as having patrons who tested positive and could have significantly increased the risk of exposure to others. The Health Department told people who were at the Beer Barrel between 6:30 and 8 p.m. on July 2 or at the Pit Stop between 9:30 and 11:30 p.m. on July 3 to monitor their symptoms.
Wartman said as long as Health Department staff are confident that they can contact everyone they need to at affected businesses, but they are becoming overwhelmed with the time and effort it takes to reach everyone involved in a large gathering. The county will therefore start to publicly identify businesses that had positive-testing customers and cite the varying degrees of risk of exposure on the Health Department website. She acknowledged the potential risk for discrimination, but the Health Department would take the same steps with any other communicable disease such as tuberculosis or meningitis.
Wartman also asked people to stop blaming and cyberbullying COVID-19 patients, saying no one points fingers at "Grandma" for going to church with the flu.
Reporter Peter J. Wasson contributed to this report.
Having posed a series of increasingly paranoid-sounding questions about the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Appleton City Council member William Siebers cleared his throat, preparing for the most outlandish yet.
"I've got to be serious," he said. "Are there going to be any cameras situated in the city of Appleton that (are) going to supervise anybody who is quarantined or isolated in their homes, to make sure they don't leave their homes?"
Siebers' question was designed to prompt a city staffer to explain that, despite what residents may have heard, Appleton was not planning to adopt an official Big Brother policy.
Conspiracy-tinged rumors swirled around Appleton ahead of the council's June 17 online meeting. Council members received an email in May from somebody who claimed to have witnessed city employees installing surveillance cameras in parts of town that still lack cameras, Council Member Katie Van Zeeland said.
"So, there is this conspiracy theory that local government is at least partially responsible for some sort of surveillance system to make sure that when the state is under quarantine guidelines, people are staying at home," Van Zeeland said. "Somebody is doing some fear mongering."
A June 17 post on the Facebook page Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine urged Appletonians to oppose the City Council's acceptance of up to $1.2 million in state reimbursement for its public health response to COVID-19.
The post warned that "bad stuff is about to happen at the council meeting tonight," and "there are now cameras set up all over for surveillance." It drew hundreds of reactions and comments online and fueled a barrage of questions to the council about contact tracing and isolation protocols from concerned residents — and from people who don't live in Appleton.
Commenting by email on the out-of-towners who weighed in on the debate, Siebers said: "I got the impression that they were not aware that their (own) communities also have available to them money to reimburse (COVID-19) expenses."
Van Zeeland took to Facebook to address the suspicions of residents who accused the government of overreaching in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. In an interview, she said she watched skeptics perform "mental gymnastics" to make conspiracy theories "make sense to them."
The council decided to address the rumors headon, "so staff could refute them," Van Zeeland said. The 15-member council voted unanimously to approve the funding. But the episode frustrated Van Zeeland, who said local representatives are giving residents no reason to believe they are being watched, yet rampant misinformation has required them to prove that negative — a nearly impossible task.
"You can look at our budget; we have nothing like that in our budget," she said. "You can look at all of our meetings and minutes. Everything is public; you can ask for my emails. ... I guess I don't know how to prove that something that does not exist does not exist. That's the hard part about this."
Appleton isn't the only place in Wisconsin where coronavirus skeptics are making themselves known. Employees of the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department have reported receiving verbal harassment and threatening emails, and being followed while driving health department vehicles. The department's logo has since been removed from the vehicles, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
Contact tracing key pandemic tool
Conspiracy theories about contact tracing have percolated on social media since early May, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published guidelines on how state health authorities should implement this "core disease control measure" to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has killed at least 130,000 Americans — including about 800 Wisconsinites, according to government estimates.
President Donald Trump's administration included contact tracing in its Opening Up America Again guidelines but left it up to state governments to assemble tracing teams.
Contact tracing identifies and informs people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has hired 1,000 contact tracers at $20 an hour to help track the virus' spread, a strategy that experts touted as crucial in reopening the state's economy and protecting public health. But suspicion and mistrust of contact tracers quickly gained traction on Facebook and Twitter. A social media monitoring project by Wisconsin Watch and First Draft News — an international nonprofit concerned with trust and truth in the digital age — has tracked a series of false narratives about the disease investigators.
The unsupported theories go well beyond a national grid of surveillance. Some suggest that Gov. Tony Evers has been selling the information gathered by contact tracers, while others say the tracers are "communist soldiers."
Among the more bizarre: that contact tracers are tracking people by requiring a Wisconsin ID to get a haircut. And many posit that tracers work in conjunction with Child Protective Services to remove children from the homes of high-risk medical professionals — a popular theme of disinformation surrounding the issue, according to analysis by First Draft researcher Keenan Chen.
"While forced removal did happen in China and perhaps in some other countries, there has not been any indication or report that (U.S.) law enforcement agencies have used such a tactic," he said.
Bill number fuels false narrative
Much of the social media misinformation surrounds HR 6666 — the COVID-19 TRACE Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat. The bill would direct $100 million to contact tracing programs. The bill's assigned number happens to be one digit away from 666 — the "number of the beast" — which only fueled suspicion from national figures such as Charlie Kirk, author of "The MAGA Doctrine" and a reported sower of misinformation. In a viral Twitter post, he called tracing programs "a totalitarian power grab."
Further muddying the waters, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul recently warned that scammers may be posing as contact tracers to steal personal information.
"Contact tracing is a key part of the effort to reduce transmission of the coronavirus, but it's important to know that scammers may try to pose as contact tracers," Kaul said in a statement. "Before giving anyone information for contact tracing, please make sure they are a legitimate contact tracer and not someone trying to commit identity theft."
Real contact tracers won't ask for money, your Social Security number, or bank or credit card information, Kaul said. They won't identify the person who tested positive by name. They will call by phone — not send text messages or emails asking you to follow a link — and identify themselves by first and last name and their health department.
Public Health Madison and Dane County said in a June 30 Facebook post that local contact tracers are increasingly encountering "people with COVID-19, especially younger people, refusing to tell us the names of close contacts."
"People might be hesitant to give the names of their contacts because they think they have been doing something 'bad' — like gathering — and don't want to get others in trouble," Christy Vogt, a health education coordinator for the county, said in an email. "Some people think they've already told their friends they tested positive and that that is 'good enough.' And others might be concerned that if they tell us close contacts, those people will be
Ashland has received funding that will allow the city to reconnect its popular waterfront trail system that was severed while the lakefront Superfund site was cleaned up.
The city received $29,850 from the Wisconsin Coastal Management program to restore the trail. The new trail will run along the abandoned rail corridor near the bluff at Kreher Park and a connector path will run to the waterfront near where the old trail was located, allowing hikers, runners and bikers to get close to the water.
The work will reconnect the trail from Ellis Avenue to Prentice Avenue along the old railroad grade, shortening it and making it more streamlined.
Ashland Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hudson said the city hopes to get the new trail roughed out from Prentice Avenue to Willis Avenue, where it would rejoin the old trail.
However, the work won't take place immediately. Delays caused by the COVID 19 pandemic mean that the first steps in reusing the former Superfund site will have to wait until 2021, even though cleanup efforts are complete. Because of precautions to prevent the spread of the infection, Environmental Protection Agency personnel have been unable to come to Ashland to sign off on the project, allowing the reuse work to move forward.
Hudson said the site could be turned over to the city later this summer or in the fall.
The next major work to be done on the expanded Kreher Park will include construction of a new boat dock and associated parking lot, which has a projected price tag of $1.7 million. The cost including a new bathroom facility could be double that figure, she said. For the short term, portable bathrooms will be set up to serve the boat launch area while the city figures out how to fund permanent restrooms.
Hudson said the bathrooms will be so expensive because utilities will be run to them through the cap that covers the Superfund site, and that requires contractors with specialized skills.
Hudson said the city is seeking more grant money to pay for the boat launch.
"If we get that funding, we will be able to build the boat launch and the parking lot, which are the two main things the community wants," she said.
For the time being, the balance of the new park space will likely be held as a green area with potential for community events, she said.