No mask mandate in La Crosse County at this time, health director says

The Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative addressed the public regarding the community's situation with COVID-19 Friday

LA CROSSE COUNTY (WKBT) – For the first time in months, the Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative held a media briefing addressing the public regarding the community’s situation with COVID-19.

Despite experts recommending masks, health director Audra Martine says La Crosse County will not mandate them inside public areas.

“At this time, it’s more common across the state of Wisconsin to not have a mask mandate,” Martine said.

But Martine does not rule it out.

“If we find that that’s something that we find is the best option for La Crosse, it would be considered,” Martine said.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the current seven-day average of cases in La Crosse County is among the highest since the pandemic began.

Currently, the weekly average in the county stands at 197.

“Assume the people out there who feel fine walking around, at least 10 percent of those are infected,” Gundersen Health System CEO Dr. Scott Rathgaber said.

Health experts say they are not exactly sure when the Omicron variant will peak.

“I think there’s some hope that by mid-month, or towards the latter half of the month, we’ll see a peak and then a fall,” Mayo Clinic Health System Regional Vice President Dr. Paul Mueller said.

The surge is causing strain to area hospitals and schools.

La Crosse School District superintendent Aaron Engel says facilities are going through “significant absences” with both students and staff.

Logan Middle School paused in-person learning for part of the week due to a lack of substitute teachers.

“It is more and more challenging to keep our community and our schools running with these staffing shortages,” Engel said.

Engel says the district’s safety policies — including wearing masks — have led to very little virus transmission in schools.

“We feel comfortable with kids when they’re at school with the procedures that we have in place,” Engel said.

Engel also says virtual learning is still an option, but a last resort.

Officials will be evaluating each school on a case by case basis.

The plan is to keep kids in school because that’s where they learn best.

“We also know that when students are at home, it creates an additional burden for parents and leads to other staffing issues across our community,” Engel said.

Engel says La Crosse school leaders do not intend to close the entire district again unless there is a broader statewide shut down.

Both Gundersen and Mayo leaders say each healthcare system will not be requiring booster shots for staff at this time.