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So yesterday, the River News in Rhinelander came out with a hit piece against Linda Conlon,

Kirk Bangstad

So yesterday, the River News in Rhinelander came out with a hit piece against Linda Conlon, our Oneida County Public Health Officer in charge with setting policy to keep us all safe during the pandemic.

When I say hit piece, I mean it was intended to hurt Conlon instead of actually report the news. I’ve posted the content of the piece below because if you don’t subscribe to the River News (and you shouldn’t because they’re not credible), you can’t read it.

If you read between the lines, the real story that emerges from this article should be called “The Tale of 3 Crooks: Rob Swearingen, the Tavern League, and Greg Walker, owner of the Lakeland Times and River News.”

The issue at hand is whether the Oneida County Health Department should publicly announce where someone who has contracted Covid-19 has been while they were potentially contagious, so that people who have been in the same place can get tested and isolate to curb the spread of the virus. A secondary issue is why were only some types of businesses where infected people hung out singled out (bars and restaurants) instead of others (retail, e.g. Walmart).

We can address these questions while weaving in our first crook: Rob Swearingen.

Because Swearingen voted to abruptly end Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order instead of reopen in phases as originally planned, most county public health departments were caught flat-footed. We’ve read that Wisconsin is currently trying to hire an army of contact tracers to be able to PRIVATELY (instead of publicly) call people who might be exposed. Oneida county is small, but gets populated with lots of tourists this time of year, so they most likely don’t have the number of contact tracers they need to reach people who have been exposed to viruses in a bar in order to tell them to get tested, thus the need to announce publicly where an infected person has been so people that have been in the same place can get tested.

As a restaurant owner, I agree that getting called out publicly when someone exposed my customers to the virus would be quite painful, thus I publicly stated that I only plan to reopen the inside of my restaurant when there’s an ability to contact everyone who has been there and tell them they were potentially exposed. This means taking the temperature of customers and not allowing those in who have a fever, and getting the phone numbers of customers (among other ideas) so that they can be traced at a later time if necessary. At the very least, if I got called out publicly for exposing customers to a virus, I could point out the safety procedures I was using to keep them as safe as possible.

These are the systems that needed to be in place before restaurants and bars were allowed to reopen. This is what has been done around our own country and in the countries who have successfully contained the virus.

Rob Swearingen, a restaurant owner, certainly knew this was the proper way to re-open but instead voted to make us the Wild West. Can anyone guess why?

And finally, why are restaurants and bars being singled out to announce publicly if people are exposed to the virus in them?

We’ve all read that bars and restaurants are more dangerous re: covid than other types of businesses because the longer someone is exposed to this virus within a short distance, the more likely they are to be infected. People go to bars and restaurants to hang out, and inherently are there for long periods of time, as opposed to retail stores, where they typically go in and buy what they need and leave. this is why in the original phased reopening of Wisconsin, restaurants were supposed to re-open in a later phase, and bars were slated to reopen in the last phase.

Why is Rob Swearingen, a restaurant owner, criticizing Linda Conlin for singling out bars and restaurants? Can anyone guess why?

In short, Rob Swearingen and his legislative majority forced the Oneida County Health Department to publicly announce which bars and restaurants those infected had been in, instead of privately call patrons with contact tracers, because he wasn’t willing to work with our governor to put all the proper systems in place to do the right thing before reopening.

Why did he do this? Because he owns a restaurant and cares more about making money than the health of his customers and the health of his constituents.

This is not why I call him a crook however.

Rob’s a crook because he is in thrall to the Tavern League, and will do what he’s told in order to keep his party in power, which was why he voted to hold an election during a pandemic and overturn safer-at-home when his county is primarily composed of vulnerable senior citizens.

That brings us to the Tavern League. They are using their statewide power to threaten suing a small county public health official for doing the best job she can under the circumstances thrust at her by a cynical Republican coup to overturn safer-at-home regulations.

Again, again, and again...

The Tavern League is crooked because they care more about the booze being sold by the liquor distributor monopolies and and corporate breweries (not small Wisconsin craft breweries that employ thousands of Wisconsinites) than the well-being of bar owners and the health of Wisconsinites.

Instead of threatening public health officials, why couldn’t they work with them and our city officials to create more outdoor space for bars to serve their customers? This is currently being done in Wausau to the huge benefit of bar owners and the safety of Wausau residents.

And finally, let’s talk about our 3rd crook, Greg Walker and his henchman Richard Moore, a so-called investigative reporter who seemingly only investigates people who Greg Walker personally, or because of his extreme right wing ideology, wants to hurt.

In this piece below, Linda Conlon time and time again answered very pointed questions concerning the rationale used in her decision-making by citing scientific evidence from a variety of reputable sources. It is laughably apparent that Richard Moore, by hammering away at the theme of her decisions being “subjective” instead of based in science, would stop at nothing to discredit her and at best, confuse the issue for the reader to make it look like she wasn’t being professional or above board.

Why does he do this? Because he and his boss Greg Walker are conservative ideologues who probably think this virus is a hoax, given the right wing media they probably consume. Their rigid ideology forces them to belittle the one person in this county in charge of keeping us safe during this pandemic, just like the extreme right wing has discredited scientists across the board including the head of the NIAID, Dr. Fauci. 

How do you think the Oneida county public health department feels when they’re doing the best they can and are now being being threatened with lawsuits? They didn’t ask for this, it was thrust into their laps because Republicans took the power away from Evers to regulate at a state wide level, which was thrust into Evers’ lap because Trump abdicated federal responsibility to create a nationwide policy.

If democracy in the United States exists after this coming presidential election, it will be written that there’s never been an assault on scientists and healthcare officials quite like the one during the pandemic of 2020 in America, and we will know in Rhinelander and Minocqua that the assault came all the way down to the local level as well.

That’s my “Tale of Three Crooks.”

We can do so much better in the Northwoods by trusting in science, caring about each other, and electing officials that care more about their constituents than holding onto power or personally enriching themselves during a crisis.

There is an alternative at the ballot box, AND where you spend your advertising dollars, to the crooks who have thrown our country, our state, and our towns into such turmoil.

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Tavern League lobbyist: OC health department practicing ‘biological McCarthyism’
Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

The Oneida County Health Department has begun to name certain businesses visited by people who have tested positive for COVID-19 if the department concludes the visit posed a risk of significant exposure to others, but a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Tavern League criticized the policy this week, calling it "biological McCarthyism."

Along with Tavern League lobbyist Scott Stenger, State Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) also criticized the policy, which is based both on a subjective interpretation of COVID-19 scientific data about how long contact must be maintained with a person before significant exposure occurs - as well as the type of interaction - and on CDC (Centers for Disease Control) criteria that is itself changing, and was changed this past week.

The health department (OCHD) unveiled its new policy on May 27 in a press release announcing the confirmation of a ninth person in the county being diagnosed with the virus. According to the health department, the infected person was in their 60s and had no known contact with someone who had previously tested positive for COVID-19, plus no history of travel outside of the community.

However, the department continued, the person had visited businesses in the community while potentially contagious. The department then named two of those businesses. The visits to those businesses had occurred almost two weeks - 12 days and 13 days, respectively - before the agency named them. The date of the person's positive test is unknown.

"With the increased movement of people at this time, OCHD will begin to share more information about the public places people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have been during their time of communicability if the time spent there could have resulted in significant exposure for others," the department's May 27 release stated. "This will hopefully allow the public to better know their potential risk of coming in contact with someone who has tested positive."

But Stenger blasted the policy, saying it provided the public with no useful information or value.

"This scarlet letter approach of saying someone who was in a bar two weeks earlier - there's no public policy benefit of doing that whatsoever," Stenger told The Times this week.

Public safety - or targeting

A day after the health department issued its press release, and after questions about the potential for unfairly targeting those businesses were raised, the health department issued a second statement, posted on its Facebook page, defining when the department considered a person to pose a significant risk of exposure to others while visiting a public place, which was contact for 15 minutes or more during their time of communicability.

The department also clarified why it was naming businesses.

"This is not intended to lay blame on anyone who tests positive (people may not have symptoms during their period of communicability and may not know they are sick), any local businesses, or other locations identified," the May 28 post stated. "It is meant to allow the public to better know their potential risk of being previously exposed to someone who has tested positive."

As people move about more, the post continued, tracing all contacts becomes increasingly more difficult.

"In situations in which someone who has tested positive and has been out in public, it may be up to the community to identify if they should be tested based on if they have been to the same places as the person who tested positive on the same dates," the post stated. "It is important for everyone to be diligent as people without symptoms can spread the virus and may be visiting the same places as you are."

Stenger disputed those arguments. For one thing, he said, the health department was only singling out certain businesses.

"They didn't even mention other businesses," he said. "The reality is, if you're going to do that, every business is going to have people who are positive entering into their establishment."

As for contact tracing, that is important, Stenger said, but it is supposed to be conducted in private.

"Contact tracing is a private function, not a public function where you say you are going to publicly try to find people who were in this establishment," he said. "It serves no purpose and hopefully we can all agree what the goal is, but the goal ought not be - especially coming out of a pandemic where we were closed for the better part of two months - the goal shouldn't be to bankrupt these businesses based on the word of someone."

Complicating the issue is the identity of the businesses are disclosed, Stenger said, but the identity of the person making the claims about the business is not.

"We don't even know who this person is," he said. "Basically we have to trust this information. We have no way to verify it. ... Unlike the virus - we're all in that boat - but to have some official at a county basically say, 'well, this business, this business and this business,' that's just out of line. If someone doesn't like a certain business or business owner, who is to say they couldn't generate a similar press release."

Stenger also said the public derives nothing useful from the disclosure.

"If I am a resident of Oneida County, what does this provide me?" he asked. "This doesn't make me safer. It doesn't provide me with any relevant information. It is only meant really to harm the business, and that cannot be in the best interest of the county."

Stenger said the Tavern League stood ready to work with counties to educate its members and customers and to assist in any way that was productive.

"But I don't see anything productive coming out of a press release two weeks after someone who tested positive was allegedly in a business," he said.

If it becomes a pattern, Stenger said, the Tavern League and business owners would be put in a very difficult position.

"It's like biological McCarthyism, and we are sadly in this environment - and we understand why and what governments have had to do - but we're trying to dig ourselves out of this enormous deficit, and, to put this on top of it for no public policy rationale, it's putting us in a position of looking at legal recourse and that is not at all where we want to be at this point in time. We think we should all be pulling in the same direction instead of pointing out a business that did nothing wrong."

Stenger said a business owner's situation needs to be considered.

"If you have a noticeable decrease in your business as a result of this, and you've done nothing wrong - we're not advocating legal action, that's the last thing we want, but that's the only alternative that might be available to some of these businesses," he said.

State Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) was critical of the health department's policy this week, too. In addition to being a state lawmaker, Swearingen owns the Al-Gen Dinner Club in Rhinelander.

"I question the thinking of the Oneida County Health Department on putting out a press release that targets individual businesses as potentially being infected with Covid as a result of a patron," Swearingen told The Times. "At a time when people are already apprehensive about taking precautionary measures, spreading this news could cause irreparable damage to any business reputation, especially if they had no knowledge of any infraction until up to two weeks later."

Like Stenger, Swearingen questioned the omission of other businesses.

"Also, I am puzzled as to why big box retailers, grocery stores, home improvement centers, convenience stores, and others that have been open since the beginning of the pandemic are not being targeted in the same manner," he said. "Hospitality venues have been closed for two months and are trying to salvage what might be left of any 2020 summer business. This kind of news could signal the end of any small business already financially strapped."

Swearingen said he had been in contact with the Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA) about the matter. Stenger also indicated the Tavern League had contacted the WCA, and both expressed a desire for an amicable resolution to the issue that would satisfy all parties.

"I'm in high hopes that all sides can work out an agreement that mutually addresses health and small business concerns moving forward," Swearingen said.

Oneida County board chairman Dave Hintz struck a decidedly different tone, however. Hintz did not criticize the policy of publicly naming businesses, but said instead Oneida County public health officer Linda Conlon had his full support.

"Ms. Conlon has made many difficult decisions during the current pandemic," Hintz wrote in an email. "The decisions on what information to release are complex and based upon science as well as public and private interest. Ms. Conlon is directing us through the uncharted waters of this pandemic and has acted in a professional and skilled manner."

Subjective policies, changing criteria

After the health department named the businesses in question, The Lakeland Times reached out to Conlon with questions about the policy, and Conlon answered this week.

Those questions have become all the more important because the CDC significantly changed its contact tracing guidelines this week.

Among other questions, The Times sought clarification about the department's determination to name a business if the time spent there by the positive and potentially communicable individual could have resulted in a significant exposure for others, namely, contact for 15 minutes or more.

The question was, was there close contact with another person or persons for 15 minutes or more, as opposed to just being in the establishment for 15 minutes or more? That's important because, according to the CDC, significant community exposure is based on close contact (defined as six feet or less) with an infected person for 15 minutes. Simply being in the establishment for 15 minutes would not qualify by itself.

But Conlon says the person did have such contact with people who could not be traced: "We were unable to identify the other individuals in (the bar) and restaurant areas," she wrote. "The person who has tested positive for COVID-19 indicated they had conversations with people in the place of business and had been inside much longer than 15 minutes."

Conlon stressed that, according to the CDC, a close contact is defined as someone who was within six feet of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic clients, 10 days prior to positive specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated.

"In this case, the person who has tested positive for COVID-19 did have close contact with a number of people at the establishment under that definition," she said.

The Times also asked Conlon to cite the scientific evidence she used to determine the criteria, including any studies she used or guidance issued by the CDC or DHS or other sources.

Conlon says the department uses Communicable Disease follow up and Outbreak Investigation manuals from the Wisconsin Division of Public Health; EpiNet manual; Control of Communicable Diseases manual; Red Book: Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases; and Health Departments: Interim Guidance on Developing a COVID-19 Case Investigation & Contact Tracing Plan.

There are questions, however, about just how objective and scientifically sound the CDC's Interim Guidance on Developing a COVID-19 Case Investigation & Contact Tracing Plan's criteria are, especially because the CDC itself cautions that some of the data is inadequate.

For example, while the CDC has established 15 minutes of close contact as a benchmark for departments to use, it stresses that the time is anything but definitive.

"Data are insufficient to precisely define the duration of time that constitutes a prolonged exposure," the CDC states. "Recommendations vary on the length of time of exposure but 15 minutes of close exposure can be used as an operational definition. In healthcare settings, it is reasonable to define a prolonged exposure as any exposure greater than a few minutes because the contact is someone who is ill. Brief interactions are less likely to result in transmission; however, symptoms and the type of interaction (e.g., did the person cough directly into the face of the individual) remain important."

That criteria thus demands the department make subjective judgments about both the duration of contact and the type of interaction, and thus the decision to name businesses is based on that subjective judgment.

What's more, it is unclear from Conlon's response whether the individual was symptomatic or asymptomatic. That's critical now because, according to Conlon's definition of close contact, if the individual was asymptomatic, close contacts would be defined as those having close contact of 15-minutes duration at any time during the 10 days prior to the collection of the specimen leading to a positive test.

That is to say, if a positive test occurred May 23 (assuming specimen collection the same day), to use an example, the department would look for close contacts of 15 minutes or more during the 10 previous days, which would include the days the individual visited the businesses in question.

However, what Conlon did not mention is that, on May 29, the CDC changed that criteria in its contact tracing guidance, from 10 days to two days. So, if an asymptomatic individual tested positive on the hypothetical May 23 date, the visits to the establishments eight and nine days prior would not count, and the businesses would not have been named, if it had been based on the May 29 guidance.

Here's how the CDC explained the reason for the change: "Additionally, recent data suggests that asymptomatic persons may have a lower viral burden at diagnosis compared to symptomatic cases. Thus, the longer contact elicitation window (beginning 10 days prior to specimen collection) may have limited impact in identification of new COVID-19 cases. Furthermore, the recommendation for the shorter contact elicitation window (beginning 2 days prior to specimen collection) will help focus case investigation and contact tracing resources towards activities most likely to interrupt ongoing transmission. This time period is also now in alignment with WHO, European CDC, and Public Health Canada."

Of course, it is not known if the individual was asymptomatic or when the person tested positive, but the point is the OCHD's criteria for publicly naming a business is highly subjective with respect to the 15-minute time period and type-of-interaction criteria, while overall the criteria is fluid and changing depending upon the assessment of new information.

The Times also asked Conlon if she was aware of any other county in Wisconsin following a similar policy.

She named five counties in which businesses visited by persons infected with COVID-19 or other communicable diseases were named: Clark, Marathon, Wood, Kenosha, Lacrosse, and Waukesha.

However, in some of the counties, only the businesses where employees tested positive were named, not customers, and Conlon suggested some were for other diseases, which could change the reasoning. The Times' own search turned up only Wood County in Wisconsin that had similarly named businesses, though The Times has not been able to completely determine whether other counties might also being doing so.

Since the disclosure of the businesses, the health department has confirmed the 10th and 11th cases of a positive COVID-19 test in Oneida County, but no businesses were named in either announcement.

Written by Kirk Bangstad on 06/06/20

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