Starting March 1, face masks will not be required indoors in Dane County, according to Public Health Madison & Dane County. The agency said cases and hospitalizations have dropped substantially, and nearly 60 percent of residents are up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters.
A press release from the health department said that new COVID-19 cases fell to a seven-day average of 340 cases, less than 25 percent of a seven-day peak of 1,491 new cases on Jan. 12.
The agency said hospitalizations are down "substantially" to a seven-day average of 110. That's 44 percent lower than a seven-day peak of 195 people needing hospitalization on Jan. 15.
Janel Heinrich, Public Health Madison & Dane County director, said the announcement doesn't mean the department is saying the pandemic is over.
"We are in a new phase where we have come down significantly from the peak of our COVID activity and hospitalizations, and we are still in a place where COVID could have disruptions to our health or things that we are involved with," Heinrich said. "So, we are moving to a place that we would recommend that folks might continue to wear face coverings because we know that they're an effective strategy to reduce the risk of transmission."
According to PHMDC, the high level of new COVID-19 cases driven by the virus' omicron variant in January led to a lower hospitalization rate compared to surges when COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters weren't readily available. County health officials estimate 58 percent of Dane County residents are up-to-date on vaccination series and booster shots.
Data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services show Dane County has the highest vaccination rates in the state with 77.5 percent of residents having completed the vaccine series.
The county was still listed as having a "critically high" level of COVID-19 case activity between Jan. 26 and Feb 8, though the agency said it had a "shrinking case trajectory" of -37 percent, according to DHS.
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According to DHS data, Dane County has reported 441 confirmed deaths caused by COVID-19. When compared to the number of residents, Dane County has the lowest percentage of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
Heinrich said Dane County's mask requirements, in addition to having the highest vaccination rate in Wisconsin, has helped reduce COVID-19 transmission. She said PHMDC will continue to monitor any surges of new cases when considering if future mask requirements will be needed.
"We, as an organization with a responsibility to support the health of our whole county in achieving better outcomes, are not going to take our foot off the pedal with regard to understanding the best practices to stay well and monitoring the virus," Heinrich said.
PHMDC's decision to lift the county and city mask requirements on March 1 doesn't necessarily mean masks will go by the wayside.
Tim LeMonds, of the Madison Metropolitan School District, sent an email to WPR that said there haven't been any changes to the district's COVID-19 safety protocols.
"However, we are consulting with PHMDC and our medical advisory team on the issue this week," he said.
The county's mask requirement also doesn't apply to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has its own mask mandate in effect until March 1.
An email sent to WPR by UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said university leaders are continuing to consult with health experts to monitor COVID-19 cases on and off campuses. She said an announcement will be made before the end of the month about whether the face mask requirement will continue.