Dane Co. health officials change course, extend mask order into new year

MADISON, Wis. — After previously saying they had no plans to issue another indoor mask mandate once the current emergency order expires later this week, Dane County health officials have changed course and announced an extension that will carry the order into the new year.

Public Health Madison & Dane County announced Tuesday that the latest mask order, Face Covering Emergency #5, will go into effect when the current order expires on November 27 and will run until 12:01 a.m. January 3, 2022.

Unlike previous orders, the new mask mandate will allow people to remove their masks indoors if all individuals in the enclosed space are fully-vaccinated, which is being defined as two weeks after their second dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two weeks after the first dose of a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Dane County’s top health official, PHMDC director Janel Heinrich, said the holiday travel season has prompted the unexpected extension.

“We had hoped to not issue any more face covering orders but in the last three weeks, our rate of disease in the community has nearly doubled, the rate among children is at an all-time high and in other parts of the state, cases are even higher,” Heinrich said in a statement announcing the new mandate. “With the holiday travel season upon us, this Order provides more time for those who are newly eligible to get their first and second doses and for more adults to get booster doses.”

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Heinrich said she understands some community members are frustrated with the mandate.

“I don’t want to be issuing them for perpetuity’s sake, but we also need to look at the overall impact of what we’re experiencing in the community,” she said.

RELATED: UW-Madison extending mask mandate to Jan. 15

Dane County has consistently seen some of the lowest COVID rates in the state — which health officials say is due to the county’s high vaccination rate and masking policy — but the CDC still classifies community transmission in the county as high.

The county reported 223 new cases of COVID-19 in the last day, according to PHMDC’s COVID dashboard. Dane County has seen a 14.4% increase in COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks.

Rising cases, especially among children, were just too high to ignore, Heinrich said.

“Right now, we’re unable to determine what our current pace of vaccination is,” she said. “I think what we want to see is having that full herd immunity conferred to our youngest kiddos and to see the impact of that on our total population.”

When it comes to a specific vaccination threshold, Heinrich said it’s hard to pinpoint a percentage at which it would be acceptable to eliminate the mandate. Instead, she said the focus is on getting newly-eligible children to a point where they are transmitting less of the virus, missing fewer days of school and reaching a rate that helps drop the county’s overall case count.

RELATED: Dane Co. Board of Health speaks out against resolution calling for mask order to be revoked

UW Health Chief Quality Officer Dr. Jeff Pothof said the order’s extension makes sense as case numbers increase.

“Initially with that downward trend, I think they said likely they wouldn’t have to (extend it), and then as soon as they said that, cases started to go back up, and now it probably does make sense for just a little bit longer, especially as we wait for those younger kids to get vaccinated,” he said on Live at Four.

While many people may wonder why Dane County — with the state’s highest vaccination rate — has a mask mandate in place when surrounding counties don’t, Pothof said the county is doing well because it has taken this step.

“I think if we want to continue to see Dane County feel a little bit safer, keep people a little bit safer, these kind(s) of interventions are helpful,” he said.

WATCH BELOW: UW Health’s Dr. Jeff Pothof weighs in on Dane County mask mandate extension

Officials are urging all eligible adults to get the COVID vaccine booster to help further control the spread of the virus.

You can read the full order here or below.