Members of the administrative committee of the Door County Board of Supervisors, seen here in a screenshot of the video conference meeting on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, discuss a public health advisory regarding COVID-19.

The Door County Public Health department plans to issue a public health advisory on face masks, physical distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the next two days, after the administrative committee of the Door County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to support it.

The advisory, still in draft form, lists six recommendations, county administrator Ken Pabich said after the meeting. Those include wearing cloth face coverings in indoor and outdoor public settings where physical distancing is hard to maintain; limiting trips outside the home to those that are essential; washing hands frequently and avoiding touching your face; avoiding in-person events where physical distancing of at least six feet is hard to maintain; practicing physical distancing; and getting tested for COVID-19 if you have symptoms or have been exposed.

Ashland and Bayfield counties in northern Wisconsin issued a similar public health advisory last week.

The advisory is a strong recommendation to follow best practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, county corporation counsel Grant Thomas told committee members. It does not rise to the level of a public health order or county ordinance but is “a necessary next step,” Thomas said.

The number of positive tests for COVID-19 has risen dramatically this month. There were 73 cases in the county as of Monday, with 23 active cases. There were 44 total cases in the county on July 1.

“The public health advisory is an effort to get that back under control,” Thomas said. The county likely still will consider a public health order or ordinance mandating preventative measures, Thomas said, especially if it does not see compliance with the advisory.

Committee chair and County Board chair David Lienau said what he wanted to do was bring the advisory before the administrative committee for its support, then have the public health department issue the advisory as soon as possible, and then have the full County Board affirm its support for the advisory at its meeting July 28. Lienau represents the village of Sister Bay and part of the town of Liberty Grove.

Door County Medical Center president and CEO Brian Stephens spoke at the meeting and said the Medical Center supports the advisory as well as more stringent measures. The rate of increase in COVID-19 cases in the county this month “has been somewhat alarming,” Stephens said.

“We support all of the measures that are listed in this public health advisory,” Stephens said. “We would further support a mandate. … But I understand the complexities of that and the possible legal challenges.”

The move comes after the County Board on July 10 decided not to immediately pursue an ordinance requiring people to wear face masks in the county. The Door County Medical Center and leading county business groups supported pursuing an ordinance, but supervisors expressed concerns about the possibility of litigation if the county enacted one.

Thomas told supervisors he believes the way the county is approaching the issue now, in pursuing an advisory before taking the next step of a public health order or county ordinance, minimizes the county’s liability.

“In the event we issue an order, there will be litigation,” Thomas said. Supervisors should not worry as much about whether there will be litigation, he said, but instead focus on putting the county in the best position to defend itself against litigation.

Supervisor Susan Kohout, who represents the town of Sturgeon Bay and the eastern part of the town of Nasewaupee, said she wanted people to know that the County Board cares about limiting the spread of COVID-19.

“I think we have to do something, and this is a reasonable next step,” Kohout said.

“The worst thing would be for us to let this get totally out of control and then have to have our businesses shut down,” she added, noting that while many businesses shut down in April and May, doing so in August or September would be much worse.

Supervisor Joel Gunnlaugsson, who represents the northern part of the town of Liberty Grove and the town of Washington, said before the meeting that he would have a hard time supporting any measure that makes wearing masks mandatory.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s up to the individual businesses,” Gunnlaugsson said Tuesday morning.

Medical Center in good position with testing, CEO says

The Medical Center is in a good position with regard to COVID-19 testing, Stephens said, after some earlier difficulties getting tests.

The Medical Center now has 5,000 test kits available to use, he said, and it has tested 2,800 people in the past four months.

In addition, Stephens said the Medical Center will implement a new in-house testing system next week that it hopes will provide results in as little as two hours. Previous test results have taken up to a week, Stephens said.

“Our goal is that by the time school starts in the fall, we’ll be doing the majority of the testing in-house,” Stephens said.

There are multiple types of tests for COVID-19, Stephens said. One type, called a PCR test, assesses whether the virus that causes COVID-19 is active in a person’s system, while another type, called an antibody test, determines whether a person has had COVID-19 in the past, Stephens said.

To get a PCR test, a person must have symptoms or be under investigation by the county Public Health department (for example, if the department is testing all employees of a specific company), Stephens said.

Anyone can get an antibody test, Stephens said, but those tests do not have much value because it’s unclear whether having had COVID-19 makes someone immune to it. The county Public Health department does not include positive antibody tests in the case numbers it reports to the public, Lienau said.

The increase in COVID-19 cases in the county this month has been mostly made up of people with mild symptoms, Stephens said, and the Medical Center has not seen a corresponding increase in patients requiring hospital stays due to the disease.