'This is a new experience:' Wisconsin experts say anxiety could lead to noncompliance with mask mandates

WAUKESHA -- During a record-setting week for Wisconsin, with COVID-19 cases surpassing local and regional milestones, and a single-day record more than 1,100 new positive cases reported Tuesday, July 21 in the state, there's one hurdle behavioral experts say we need to clear before flattening the curve. We know that masks are a proven way to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, but one expert said mask-wearing is also creating a lot of anxiety.

On Tuesday, there was troubling news for Milwaukee County and all of Wisconsin. The state recorded the highest daily case count of all its Midwestern neighbors, exceeding Illinois' 955, Minnesota's 352, Iowa's 512 and Michigan's 573.

"We've seen, over the past week, more daily cases of COVID-19 in Milwaukee County than at any other point so far in the pandemic," said Dr. Ben Weston with the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

With eight straight days of increases in hospitalizations, leaders are sounding the alarm. DHS officials reported 1,117 new positive coronavirus cases Tuesday, blowing past neighbors in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota,

Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow

"As the summer days came into Wisconsin, people got out and there was a relaxation that occurred," said Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow. "We relaxed ourselves because we don't see what's happening."

In Waukesha, long lines of cars waited for drive-thru testing Tuesday with some turned away because of overwhelming demand. The two-day testing site at the Waukesha County Expo Center shut down early on its first day.

Similar testing continues daily in Milwaukee.

Health experts say social gatherings are leading to an increase in cases. With mask use encouraged, or even mandated in some municipalities, behavioral health professionals say it's possible some aren't complying because of anxiety.

Maura Grasshoff

"This is a new experience for everyone," said Maura Grasshoff, UW Health behavioral health therapist. "We are not used to going out in public and having to wear face coverings or not see other people's faces."

Grasshoff said all of her clients have reported increased stresses during the pandemic. She encourages everyone to do whatever's necessary to feel comfortable in your mask.

"Getting yourself comfortable at home -- trying out a mask a little bit at a time might be an easier way to ease into it," said Grasshoff.

More than half of states have statewide mask mandates, including Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, which announced its on Wednesday. Racine, Green Bay and Superior joined Madison and Milwaukee as Wisconsin cities that passed mandates requiring people to wear masks in certain public settings. Gov. Tony Evers has resisted issuing a statewide order.

The first-term Democrat said earlier this month he was unlikely to enact such a mandate because the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down his “safer at home” order in May. That did not include a mask requirement, but the court said Evers overstepped his authority by requiring most non-essential businesses to close during the start of the outbreak. Evers did issue a mandate earlier this month for state executive branch employees to wear masks while working in state buildings.

Republicans who control the Legislature, and who could vote to pass a statewide mask mandate, have shown little to no interest in doing that.

Advice for managing anxiety around masking from UW Health:

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