By Shereen Siewert

Health officials on Saturday added 78 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases to Marathon County’s tally and issued an alert regarding youth exposure at a recent basketball event.

The number of additional cases shattered Marathon County’s earlier record and brought the county’s total to 1,312.

On Saturday, Marathon County Health Department Public Information Officer Judy Burrows said officials are investigating a COVID-19 exposure involving many local youth who spent about six hours playing basketball at a Sept. 18 event at 10th Street Park, 935 Jackson St., in Wausau.

One of the youth participating in the event tested positive for the virus, Burrows said, resulting in exposure to many youth present and participating.

Prevention measures to reduce the spread of COVID were “apparently not used,” Burrows said. “This type of gathering;including many people, over a long period of time, not using prevention measures; is contributing to the dramatic increases in cases being seen in our area.”

Herd immunity: False hope?

An increasingly popular theory suggests that letting the virus spread “naturally” in a population, a relatively hands-off approach taken by Sweden, is the answer to getting past the pandemic. Traditionally, however, herd immunity refers to the use of a vaccine to raise a population’s level of resistance to an infectious disease to the point where it can no longer spread.

But scientists around the world say allowing COVID-19 to spread in an attempt to make people immune without the aid of a vaccine would be both dangerous and deadly, and would lead to a devastating number of deaths. That’s because levels of immunity will never be high enough to achieve herd immunity without an effective vaccine in widespread use

Allowing the coronavirus to spread in an attempt to make people immune without the aid of a vaccine would be “very dangerous,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on the COVID-19 pandemic, said.

The “herd immunity” strategy was first floated by U.K. officials in March but quickly abandoned based on advice from scientists. Sweden then adopted the approach, which prompted the Swedish ambassador in April to boast that Stockholm might achieve herd immunity by the end of May.

That never happened, officials say, and the country has suffered both economic devastation and far higher death rates than its neighbors. Herd immunity in Sweden is “nowhere in sight,” KHN reports.

Another reason herd immunity might not work is that increasing evidence suggests that the protective immunity patients do gain after becoming infected with COVID-19 could fade with time, as more re-infections are being reported.

Even if infection with the COVID-19 virus creates long-lasting immunity, a large number of people would have to become infected to reach the herd immunity threshold, according to the CDC. Experts estimate that in the U.S., 70% of the population — more than 200 million people — would have to recover from COVID-19 to halt the epidemic.

If many people become sick with COVID-19 at once, the health care system could quickly become overwhelmed, the CDC cautions. This amount of infection could also lead to serious complications and millions of deaths, especially among older people and those who have chronic conditions.

Community action urged to allow schools to open

The surge in cases comes at a time when schools are grappling with how to best serve students while keeping the community safe. Marathon County Health Officer Joan Theurer said Friday that the department is providing COVID-19 data to district administrators so they and school board memers can make informed decisions “about if or when they need to move into virtual learning or close.”

“Each district has a plan for how they are conducting education and every school and district is unique,” Theurer said.

Wausau School Board members will meet Monday to discuss whether to continue virtual education or move to the next phase in the district’s reopening plan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging communities to act to ensure schools can reopen or remain open, adopting actions to mitigate community transmission.

Some skeptical about mask efficacy point to rising COVID-19 numbers in Wisconsin as evidence that Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate is not working. But health officials say about 80 to 85 percent mask compliance is necessary for the strategy to be effective – and many people report minimal or no enforcement of the order at local businesses. Taverns, convenience stores and restaurants are among the biggest offenders of the mask order, partly because eating and drinking requires taking off face coverings.

To date, health officials in Marathon County have not actively enforced Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate, leaving decisions largely up to businesses already struggling to balance public opinion with safety. Instead, the Health Department, which is tasked with enforcing the mandate, has focused on educational efforts to encourage voluntary compliance.

For daily updates on COVID-19 in the county and statewide, including hospitalization rates, see this page.