ELLSWORTH, Wis. — Like many counties all over the country, Pierce County had its own rough go during this pandemic.
"Things were going not so well this fall and winter, we peaked with cases in mid-November, with 450 cases a week, that was devastating for us," Pierce County Public Health director AZ Snyder said. "We had outbreaks in school districts, long-term care facilities, workplaces. It was really tough and our deaths really started to mount up as well."
Snyder said back then, she did what had to be done, asking people to mask up and socially distance.
She also set out an advisory to limit indoor gatherings to less than 25% capacity.
"(The advisory has) been in place since November, first it was at 25% because our numbers were still incredibly high, as our numbers started to get better and better we increased the capacity to 50%," she said. "And now we are letting that expire."
Snyder said she can describe this move as one that is cautiously optimistic. She said she understands that people are itching to get together again, especially as good news about vaccines has been coming in waves.
"The health department has always operated on hope and optimism," she said. "So that’s what we’re all about. We need to keep people looking forward and hopeful to a better year than last year. This is kind of just building recovery for our community. Now if I think our community is in danger again and I'm seeing disturbing trends with our cases, deaths and outbreaks, I won't hesitate to put the brakes on and even take a step back if we have to."
She said the decision to put out these advisories is not one she makes on a whim.
"I want the public to know we don’t take these decisions lightly," Snyder said. "When I made the decision to put in a mass gathering advisory a few months ago, I was up all night for many nights, thinking about the implications on people’s health and abilities to socialize, on our local businesses. But weighing all those factors it was the right thing to do at the time, and I will do it again if I have to go through that process."
Snyder said she’s proud that Pierce County was able to stick to its own goal of vaccinating more than 50% of its 65 years and older population by March 1. Case counts were down to 50 cases identified in the county just last week.
That being said, she’s asking people to continue to help out by masking up and socially distancing to buy some more time for vaccinations.
"People need to remember that your public health officials, we’re your neighbors, we’re your family, we are your friends," she said. "We aren’t doing something because we want to control people, we’re doing it because we’re desperately trying to use every tool in our toolbox to protect the public while we wait for vaccine availability to scale up so we can protect everybody."
Snyder also had a word of caution to share about the upcoming spring break. She identified flying as an activity that still remains "high-risk," as it is difficult to socially distance from others on a plane.
She recommended driving over flying, if people choose to travel. She also strongly urged those who plan on traveling, to quarantine when they return and to test for COVID-19 six to seven days after the return.