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Wisconsin Spotlight  | Aug. 3, 2020

MADISON — A group of Dane County emergency services officials gets together weekly at a meeting you’ve probably never heard about. 

That’s because the representatives from the local units of government, emergency response partners, public and private schools and others don’t allow the public to attend their COVID-19 Coordination conference calls. And they don’t keep official minutes of the meetings. 

Dave Janda, assistant director of Dane County Emergency Management and host of the Monday call, says it’s not a “county committee or action kind of group.” 

But the members, particularly the folks at Public Health Madison & Dane County, are the same people making the COVID-19 rules that have shut down businesses, drastically reduced capacity at stores, restaurants and churches, and have issued one of the first countywide mask orders in the state. 

The group does keep notes, however, and Janda did turn them over to Wisconsin Spotlight upon request. He was curious as to why we wanted them. He answered the question. In the call, members speak more freely than they would if the meetings were publicly noticed. 

“It’s not noticed, it’s not intended to be noticed. It’s not advisory, it’s informational, with status reports and updates,” Janda said. “There’s a certain level of candor on these meetings that, if it were public, you’d just end up with the official statement.” 

Negative data 

The notes from last week’s meeting mostly centered on the bad testing data coming out of late from Public Health Madison & Dane County,

“Percent positivity rate has been all over the place. Not reflecting reality. Explanation provided was that negative test results had not been into the data system (there was a backlog),” John Hausbeck, public health supervisor said, according to the notes. 

As Empower Wisconsin reported last week, Dane County failed to report 17,000 negative results for 10 days or more.   

State Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) called for state and local public health officials to publicly announce if their agencies currently have backlogs or had backlogs at any time since at least June 1, 2020, in reporting negative Covid-19 test results. Subsequently, the problem was reported in Waukesha County, too. The backlog has skewed positivity rates in Dane County for at least three weeks.

As Hausbeck noted during the call, you need to have both the negative and positive results in the system to calculate the percent positivity rate accurately.

“The negative results were being reported to the individuals. The situation has been addressed,” he told his fellow public officials. 

Surprise, surprise, when factoring in the negative tests, the numbers didn’t look as dire as previously reported. “A welcome sign of where we want to be,” Hausbeck said. 

“Seeing fewer new cases per day than we have in a while,” he said, according to the notes. “One of only 3 counties in the state that can make that claim and one of the most populous counties in the state.”

Yet, bars remained closed, and many businesses are living with strict customer capacity caps. 

The health supervisor told the group that Public Health Madison & Dane County officials “use the data to determine when we can move forward” with reopening. It’s data-driven decision-making “on which restrictions can be relaxed and which ones need to remain in place to maintain control over high risk situations/locations.”

But what if the data is bad or incomplete? 

Phasing out ‘phases’

We learn from the emergency officials that the creators of the Forward Dane Plan have removed the “phases” that determined restrictions and are now “referencing moving forward or backward.”

“Trying to find the best way to describe. Need to use a nuanced approach that responds to the disease, but are not overly burdening to the community,” Hausbeck  said, according to the notes.  

The topic turned to schools. What is the process and timeline for phased reopening of schools? The group was told that staff is working on that. 

“State is working on their own metrics. We are working with them to avoid confusion and provide clarity. Wanted to have more info to share, but does not have it at this time,” the notes state. 

Read the complete meeting notes here.

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