Health officials, educators concerned about increase in COVID-19 cases ahead of Thanksgiving

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WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is calling the level of COVID-19 activity across the state concerning as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday.

"We're seeing daily numbers that we haven't seen since the end of 2020, and numbers that are higher than we saw at any time during September or October, which was the initial wave of infection caused by the Delta variant in the United States," explained Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases. "Wisconsin continues to be at very high case activity level with a majority of counties remaining in that category of very high transmission. We expect to see a number of counties move into the critically high category."

On Wednesday, Wisconsin reported 3,503 new confirmed cases of COVID, bringing the 7-day average of new daily cases to 2,963. Twenty-six new deaths were reported, bringing the state's death toll to 8,812.

The rise in numbers continues to stress the Wisconsin health care system.

"Statewide, 96% of our ICU beds and 99% of intermediate care beds are currently in use," Dr. Westergaard revealed. "Many of our hospitals are operating at their full capacity or will be at their capacity in the near future."

The rise in cases in the community has educators concerned, as COVID-19 continues to impact school districts throughout the state.

Currently, Milwaukee Public Schools have over 230 open cases in the district with one school, Bryant School, practicing flexible scheduling. Ben Ward, the executive director for the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, says the union would like to see more mitigation factors in place in the community.

"It is a problem when students and staff and everyone inside a school spends a majority of their day outside of schools. Our schools are going to see the effects of what goes on in the larger community," Ward explained. "We believe that while Covid is not avoidable at this point, it is certainly possible to mitigate the levels we're seeing."

MPS isn't the only district facing challenges. In Washington County, where Covid-19 risk levels are listed as high by the county's health department, at least 22 active cases forced Silverbrook Intermediate School in West Bend to go virtual until Nov. 23.

"To respond to COVID-19, the West Bend schools have implemented a phased mitigation approach. The phase in which a school, individual classroom, or even athletic team operates changes based on the rate of COVID-19 transmission and illness absence rate. Each day, we closely review data to determine if a change in phase, which brings with it additional mitigation measures, is necessary," said Superintendent Jen Wimmer in a written statement to CBS 58. "This approach includes use of masks for students and staff for an intermittent period based on data. Implementing distance learning is used as a final step to disrupt rising or significant numbers. We will continue using this practice after the Thanksgiving break."

Meanwhile, health officials say data suggests that schools with mask mandates in place show less spread of the virus than in districts where masking is optional. Dr. Westergaard reiterated that the stance of the DHS is to encourage all students and staff to wear masks while indoors. People are also encouraged to use caution this holiday season.

"We saw increases in our 7-day average of cases following last Thanksgiving and last Christmas," Dr. Westergaard said. "It's highly plausible that when people get together in larger groups, transmission occurs."

Health officials are continuing to encourage those who are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, saying it's the best way to protect yourself against serious or long-term health complications caused by the virus.

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