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Jefferson County strongly urging masks indoors again, even for vaccinated

The Jefferson County Health Department is now “strongly” urging the wearing of masks in all indoor public settings and in large crowds outdoors, regardless of vaccine status, due to the recent surge in the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus.

In an announcement made public Monday evening, the health department pointed to a dramatic turnaround in virus cases in recent weeks in the county, for its new, more stringent advisory.

Cases of COVID-19 in Jefferson County have been increasing rapidly over the past week after a period of decline that has lasted longer than a month. This comes amidst reports from counties and states across the nation experiencing surges in newly reported cases, attributed to the highly transmissible delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. All three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for use in the United States provide good protection from severe illness from COVID-19, including the delta variant and other variants of concern, the department said.

Jefferson County’s seven-day average of daily confirmed new cases is now at seven per day per 100,000 individuals, up from recent lows of less than one case per day just one week prior. The 14-day total case count is 47 per 100,000, up from 19 cases for the two-week period prior. Scientific analyses of national and international case data estimate that the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is up to 70 percent more infectious when compared to the wild-type, or ‘original’ strain of the virus. Many areas in Wisconsin have seen a similar increase in case activity over the past several weeks. Based on genomic sequencing of confirmed cases, we know that the Delta variant of COVID-19 has become the predominant strain of the virus in Wisconsin.

In Dodge County, numbers are rising similarly, but the county is not yet making the same stronger message Jefferson County is.

“I urge people to start being more cautious,” said Dodge County Health Director Abby Sauer, who encouraged people who have been waiting on the sidelines to get the vaccination to act as soon as possible. “Do it now. Now’s the time to really, hey, get that vaccine to protect yourself.”

In Dodge County, the week ending Sunday showed almost five cases per 100,000 population, which is up from three the week before, Sauer said, and follows a couple months of less than one per day. The 14-day caseload was 54 per 100,000 population in Dodge County.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging.

Citing new information about the ability of the delta variant to spread among vaccinated people, the CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.

The new guidance follows recent decisions in Los Angeles and St. Louis to revert to indoor mask mandates amid a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that have been especially bad in the South. The country is averaging more than 57,000 cases a day and 24,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Most new infections in the U.S. continue to be among unvaccinated people. But “breakthrough” infections, which generally cause milder illness, can occur in vaccinated people. When earlier strains of the virus predominated, infected vaccinated people were found to have low levels of virus and were deemed unlikely to spread the virus much, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.

But with the delta variant, the level of virus in infected vaccinated people is “indistinguishable” from the level of virus in the noses and throats of unvaccinated people, Walensky said.

The data emerged over the last couple of days from 100 samples. It is unpublished, and the CDC has not released it. But “it is concerning enough that we feel like we have to act,” Walensky said.

Vaccinated people “have the potential to spread that virus to others,” she said.

Although Sauer said Dodge County is continuing to monitor the situation, it was Jefferson County that took a stronger step this week.

“Community residents are strongly urged to wear a mask in all indoor public settings, and outdoors in large crowds, regardless of vaccination status,” said a statement from the Jefferson County Health Department. “In addition to evidence-based public health practices to reduce transmission of COVID-19, residents should get their COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. Compared to an infected person who is not vaccinated, a person who is infected and also vaccinated for COVID-19 is less likely to become severely ill and less likely to infect others.”

JCHD encouraged community members who are not yet vaccinated to empower themselves with reliable and factual information on the benefits of getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Call 211 with any questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, or visit the Health Department’s website.

“It is vital that Jefferson County takes quick action to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep our communities safe,” the JCHD said.

The JCHD said members should engage in the following practices, even if they are fully vaccinated: Wear a mask in high-risk settings (indoor public places, outdoors in crowded spaces, etc.); physically distance from others (6 feet) in public settings; avoid crowds, poorly ventilated areas, or places where people may be sick; get tested if they have symptoms, or if they have had exposure to someone with COVID-19; quarantine if they are exposed to someone with COVID-19; stay home when you are sick; cover coughs and sneezes; wash hands often; monitor your health daily; get vaccinated for COVID-19.

— Associated Press contributed to this story

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County vaccination rates for teens lags behind state

Jefferson County teens and young adults are lagging behind the state in vaccination rates as COVID cases suddenly are spiking weeks before schools and colleges will resume.

Cases of the virus in the county now are at seven per day per 100,000 people. That’s up from the previous weeks where cases had dipped below one per day.

“Community residents are strongly urged to wear a mask in all indoor public settings and outdoors in large crowds, regardless of vaccination status,” said Gale Scott, director of the Jefferson County Health Department.

In a press release, Scott said residents who have not gotten one of the three vaccines available should do so as soon as they can.

“Compared to an infected person who is not vaccinated, a person who is infected and also vaccinated for COVID-19 is less likely to become severely ill and less likely to infect others,” she said.

While 46% of the county is fully vaccinated, compared to 48.9% of the state, the county is lagging behind in youth vaccinations.

When schools and colleges look to resume classes in September, there is concern about a spike in cases. Last year a spike hit within a week of colleges holding in-person learning.

The goal now is to get a younger group at a higher level of vaccinations. In Jefferson County, only 23.5% of those 12 to 15 years old have been vaccinated, and only 32% of those 16 and 17. That is roughly 5% lower than the state rate.

And among those ages 18 to 24, the gap is even greater. In that age range, 40% of the state is vaccinated, but only 32% in Jefferson County.

“This is where we are seeing an unusually high disparity between Jefferson County and Wisconsin overall,” said Samroz Jakvani, epidemiologist for the Jefferson County Health Department. “We generally have been trailing by 4 to 5% in most areas of vaccination coverage.”

The key for the county is to continue to work on getting vaccination numbers up in those younger age groups, he said.

The county has been working with schools to promote vaccination, including offering school-located vaccination clinics and educational materials, Jakvani said.

The county will continue efforts to increase vaccinations in the younger age group over the coming months through several means, he said, including working with health care providers, educating community members at public events where the health department has a presence, social media, and by working with other agencies in Jefferson County which are in a good place to share information with the appropriate groups like parents and caregivers.

Scott said in a release that the delta variant is up to 70% more infectious than the strain of COVID-19 from last summer.

“Many areas in Wisconsin have seen a similar increase in case activity over the past several weeks,” she said. “Based on genomic sequencing of confirmed cases, we know that the delta variant of COVID-19 has become the predominant strain of the virus in Wisconsin.”

While many states across the nation have given everything from money to plane tickets to get people to sign up for a vaccine, Wisconsin has not gone to that extreme.

Right now, Jakvani said there are no additional vaccination events for the younger group being planned at this time.

“We did hold several vaccination clinics for the younger groups starting in May, but we had very little attendance as time progressed,” he said.

“National data shows that health care providers are the most trusted messengers, and many individuals who are vaccine-hesitant may benefit significantly from discussions with their trusted providers/family practitioners,” Jakvani added.

The Jefferson County Health Department is offering in-home vaccination for individuals who are home-bound or have other barriers to access, he said.

The county also has offered on-site vaccinations for businesses.

The county also will be offering free testing, including rapid COVID tests by appointment by Aug. 2, if not earlier, Jakvani said.

“By getting vaccinated, folks will protect themselves, their families and community, and help to keep businesses open and our community thriving,” he said.

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Tates honored as Grocer of the Year

Jeff and Cindy Tate, owners of Watertown and Waterloo Piggly Wiggly stores, were surprised Tuesday morning when family and friends gathered at the Watertown store to recognize them as the state Grocers of the Year.

The Wisconsin Grocers Association is the Wisconsin food industry’s trade association with more than 750 members, and the Grocer of the Year Award is its most prestigious award. Presented annually, the award is given to a WGA member who makes significant contributions to the industry and community. The WGA has been around for 120 years, Schulz said.

In presenting the award, Schulz said, “This recognizes the great job you do. You worked hard to get to where you are today,” he said in the entrance to the store at 1330 Memorial Drive. More than 35 family, friends and employees were on hand for the award presentation.

The Tates were nominated by Brian Wohlfeil, general manager of the two stores. “It was hard to keep it a secret,” Wohlfeil said of the award presentation.

Jeff Tate is a member of the committee that selects the top award winner. He did not see the nomination made by Wohlfeil, Schulz said. Nominations are reviewed and rated in several areas, he said. “This is a highly competitive award. It is hard to get to this point.”

“We are just blown away,” Jeff Tate said upon receipt of a large cardboard cutout of the award.

Sen. John Jagler, R-Watertown, also presented the Tates with a citation from the Wisconsin Senate, recognizing the couple for their 14 years of business built around the employees and the communities.

Watertown Mayor Emily McFarland also recognized the Tates with an award. She thanked the Tates for their dedication to the community. “This is so well deserved,” she said.

Following those award, Jeff Tate said he was completely speechless.

“This is not just Jeff and Cindy,” Cindy Tate said. “But it is our employees. We have the best employees.”

Jeff, a third-generation grocer, hugged his parents who were seated at the doorway.

The Tate family owned and operated five grocery stores while Jeff was growing up, and thus the grocery business was in his blood. After a couple of jobs away from the business, Jeff was hired as the store manager at Fox Brothers Piggly Wiggly in Oconomowoc in 1997. After working several years and learning how a successful store operates from Bob and Pat Fox, the couple, along with a business partner, built the Watertown Piggly Wiggly in 2007.

In 2008, Jeff and Cindy became sole owners and in 2017, purchased the Piggly Wiggly in Waterloo. They have six children, three of whom served in the military with a combined five active tours of duty, along with four grandchildren.

“Jeff and Cindy are amazing examples of not only success, but also remarkable character,” said Wohlfeil. “Their success has been driven by faith, family, community, and giving back; their focus has never been about money, but the continued success of those around them.”

Over the last 14 years, Jeff and Cindy have donated to countless community organizations and non-profits, with donations ranging from product, money, gift certificates, and their own volunteer time. They believe in investing in the community to help all of those in need, those who protect us, and to help with the education of our future generations.

Jeff and Cindy Tate take pride in their businesses and treat all of their employees like family. Employees and their families enjoy a 5% discount, employees receive birthday gifts, holiday bonuses, and other fun giveaways throughout the year. Jeff and Cindy said they believe in their employees and know the importance and value of empowering employees and providing them the tools to succeed. Employees participate in continued training programs, with several managers participating in the WGA’s Leadership Institute.

Both Jeff and Cindy are exemplary members of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, where Jeff currently serves on the WGA Board of Directors as secretary/treasurer and also chairs the board’s government-affairs committee.

In 2014, Jeff received a WGA Excellence in Operations Award, for which he was recognized for his work ethic, commitment to the grocery industry, and for efforts that positively influenced his store, employees and customers. He and Cindy both take an active role in the political and grassroots efforts of the WGA; Jeff was recognized in 2017 for his outstanding efforts to promote and advocate on behalf of the retail food industry, being awarded the Association’s “Grocers Care Political Action Award.”

A formal award will be given to Jeff and Cindy Tate on Oct. 13 at the Wisconsin Grocer’s Innovation Expo at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay.

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Watertown Schools to open face-to-face

When students in the Watertown Unified School District return to their respective schools this fall, the feeling will be much more closer to normal than last year.

This comes on the heels of the Watertown School Board approving a one-page key safety protocol list and an 11-page district COVID-19 safety plan Monday night.

“We’re ready to open our doors fully,” Watertown Unified School District Superintendent Cassandra Schug said Monday at a regular meeting of the school board. “We’re returning to the face-to-face option.”

However, she said the district will not be offering synchronous virtual learning, which is learning in live time. Schug said the district will be offering only eCampus as their virtual option.

“We will be working to provide necessary learning supports to students who may be absent from school over longer periods of time, which will include support from our virtual learning platforms,” Schug said.

Schug said the school district will continue to monitor information from the state Department of Health, Centers for Disease Control and the local health departments.

She said, although it is not required by the school district, teachers, parents and students can wear masks if they want.

“Our goal is to have minimum restrictions in place,” she said.

Schug said the shuttle service will resume for students with all buses using seating charts with students riding near the same students in the morning and afternoon whenever possible. She said family members will be encouraged to sit with one another.

She said that for staff in-person trainings will be conducted with the maximum distancing maintained. Schug said personal protective equipment will be provided to staff as needed.

As for activities and athletics, the district will rely on WIAA to hold safe athletic practices, competitions and events.

“We’re heading towards normal,” Schug said.

She said the district is not going to inhibit socialization.

“When we can, we will have activities outside,” she said.

Schug said the board will continue to modify and update the two documents as necessary.

“The board will receive regular updates on any modifications and would vote on any major changes,” she said. “These documents will serve as guidance during the school year.”

Parent Craig Wortman told the board the plans are a “good start,” but he encouraged them to explore what a “normal” protocol is.

“We should try to use what we learned last year in the event of another pandemic or sickness were to arrive without being overbearing to teachers, parents and students,” he said.

Parent Chad Bailey agreed.

“This is not over,” Bailey said. “We are hearing about the new variant and there are more cases to come. I’m looking for assurance this district will act independently from the health department.”

Bailey said the health department has a tendency to “overreact” on their policies, which may have the district doing the same during the school year.

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UPDATE: One person dies in downtown Rome home explosion

ROME — One person was killed in a house explosion in downtown Rome Tuesday afternoon, and multiple agencies responded to the scene.

The home was demolished in the blast in what was believed to be caused by a natural gas leak.

Two people lived in the home and one was killed in the blast, according to officials at the scene.

The explosion reportedly occurred near the intersection of Water and Milwaukee streets in the village.

At this time, specific details of the incident have not yet officially been released, and it is not yet known if there were any other injuries.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is continuing its investigation into the cause and extent of the incident.

Local and area residents reported hearing the deafening explosion — even from as far away as Mukwonago — and then observed a plume of dense black smoke rise into the air.

Also responding to the scene were the Fort Atkinson, Helenville, Sullivan and Whitewater fire departments and the Western Lakes Fire District in Waukesha County. Various paramedics from the area also were on hand.

Following the explosion, residents and businesses in Rome — a village of some 700 people — reportedly were left without power.

According to We Energies spokesperson Brendan Conway, about 194 business and residential customers in Jefferson County were still without power at 5 p.m. and crews were expected to restore service soon.

Other customers affected by the outage, he said, would have power restored after We Energies crews are able to access downed wires near where authorities are investigating.

Conway said debris from the explosion likely caused the electrical outages, but that the investigation still is ongoing.