Parisi Discusses County COVID-19 Response

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Michelle Phillips

DANE COUNTY–In a conference call with News Publishing Company editors, Dane County executive Joe Parisi gave an update of the county’s COVID-19 response.

He began by reminding that the Safer at Home order may have been overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but Dane County is still implementing its own order. He said Public Health of Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) had put guidelines in place before the state order. The county had the first COVID-19 case in the state and the 12th in the country, with the first confirmed case on Feb. 5.

“That really kicked us into gear,” Parisi said.

When the state adopted its own order, the county followed those guidelines, and will continue to follow a similar order.

“Once the Supreme Court invalidated that order, we immediately reissued local orders,” he stated.

He said the county is working on increased testing and increasing staff numbers to do additional contact tracing.

“We’ve been doing a good job. We’re heading in the right direction,” he said.

There is concern from some, however, about other counties are opening and the potential to spread of the virus.

“Wisconsin really dropped the ball,” Parisi said, and added that Rock and Green counties have also issued their own health orders.

“We want to dial back up in a slow way,” he continued.

When asked about outlying towns feeling tension with the county over the orders, Parisi said towns cannot override county orders.

Parisi stated, “We all have the same goal, to get back to work and get back to work safely. People are out their helping their neighbors. It we ever needed to come together as a community it is now.”

Parisi was ask where the money was coming from to fund programs that the county has put in place to provide financial relief to businesses, farmers and residents.

He said the money was mostly coming from the federal CARES Act. As an example, he explained that the initial $800,000 for the Small Business Grant Program came from a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) that did not have to be designated to a specific project. The remaining $10 million came from CARES.

He was asked about moratoriums on evictions in the county and whether assistance would be available. He said county officials were looking at how they might help residents avoid eviction. Shortly after the interview, the county announced a $10 million program to help with eviction prevention (see related story).

Long term solutions are of concern, and Parisi said the county is expecting a $25 million sales tax revenue shortfall for 2020, and is currently working on projections for 2021.

Parisi said he immediately put a hiring freeze and voluntary furloughs in place, something that was last done during the financial crisis in 2009.

He went on to say that when he addresses department heads to discuss budget forecasts and provide guidance, he will ask them to look at areas they can cut, possibly up to five percent in some places, in the 2021 budget.

He added that the Emergency Food Program, which has received $3 million, connected farmers with those in need of food, and he hopes to forge a long term relationship between the two. 

He said the program is now underway and so far 95 percent of the farmers and growers are local. Four refrigerator trucks have been place at the Alliant Energy Center for Second Harvest to house the perishable goods coming in.

“We are really looking at an all-of-the-above approach,” he stated.

When asked if this was the worst crisis he’s faced in his nine years as county executive, Parisi replied, “Yeah, by far, because it’s everything all at once and over a long period of time. I have dealt with just about every other natural disaster…that could happen.”

He said the county looked at emergency response plans and modified them to deal with the pandemic. The difference, he said, is that most natural disasters are over in a couple of days or a couple of weeks.

“It’s already been two months in crisis mode,” he said and added that the county still must maintain services.

“I can’t tell you how impressed and amazed I am with the response. People are rising to the occasion,” Parisi commented. 

Testing is something that has been ramped up around the state, including Dane County, which is currently offering a free, drive-up COVID-19 test for anyone who wants it. Testing of more people, and testing of people who do not have symptoms, will help public health officials move forward.

“A broader cross section gives more information on prevalence and finding out about those that are asymptomatic,” Parisi said.

Data will be used on a macro level to help track community spread. Parisi said data could provide insight as to whether numbers are increasing or decreasing by looking at percentages over a period of time.

On the individual level, the data will be used to identify and track down those who had come in contact with someone who is infected.

Often, one person can be responsible for the infection of many. This is true at the Dane County Jail. Of the 37 cases of COVID-19 reported at the facility, 32 can be traced back to a single inmate who was taking medication that hid a fever.

The county also runs a care facility, and outbreaks have been a problem in many around the country. Parisi proudly reported that the county’s care center had not had an outbreak.

“The nursing home has done very well, we haven’t had any outbreaks there,” he said. He added that the county has avoided problems so far by putting precautions in place early on, including prohibiting guests from entering the facility.

He praised jail staff for keeping the outbreak at the jail from getting worse. They have tried to maintain social distancing as much as possible and isolated inmates that test positive, as well as contact tracing, he said. In addition sheriff David Mahoney and staff have worked to reduce the number of inmates through early release or home monitoring. The jail has also begun testing inmates as the enter.

“I think the more we realize we are in this together, the better off we’ll be,” Parisi concluded.

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