Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers declared a public health emergency due to novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, today. Evers says this will grant more power to the state Department of Health Services and allow the state to fight the outbreak.
Wisconsin’s first case of COVID-19 was found in Dane County in early February. Since then, seven others have been identified in the state, and two of them were announced this afternoon. Four are in Dane County, two are in Fond Du Lac County, one is in Waukesha County, and one is in Pierce County. Evers says that the infected people have been receiving medical care, and that the state was not caught off-guard.
“Wisconsin, through its leadership and expertise at the Department of Health Services, has been preparing for the potential of a pandemic,” says Evers. “Because of their diligence, combined with the experience and hard work of our local and tribal health officers and other partners across the state, the risk to the majority of Wisconsinites remains low.”
Evers says that the Department of Health Services is testing a few hundred people a day for the disease, but did not give an exact number. He says that the government is testing as many people as they can, and that private labs are now starting to test people as well.
COVID-19 is a virus transmittable through person-to-person contact. According to the Centers for Disease Control, symptoms manifest 2 to 14 days after a person is exposed to the virus, and include fever, coughing, and being short of breath.Risks of serious consequences are higher for the elderly and the immunocompromised.
Andrea Palm, the secretary-designee of Health Services in Wisconsin, says that the government will be releasing new guidelines in order to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading.
“Our recommendations for events include cancelling events with over 250 people,” says Palm. “If your event has less than 250 people, we are currently finalizing guidance on how to think through a decision about whether or not to cancel. We recommend against travelling to areas in the United States with sustained community transmission. If you do travel to places with sustained community transmission, we recommend you isolate in your home for fourteen days. We will also recommend additional steps for long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living facilities to protect those residents.”
Palm says that guidelines will evolve as the situation evolves.
At time of publication, California has reported 175 cases of coronavirus, New York has 215 cases, and Washington state has 376 cases. The virus originated in China, and was brought to the United States by people travelling abroad. But in those three states, people have become infected through community contact.
Yesterday, the University of Wisconsin-Madison sent out a statement saying they would be switching to online-only classes after spring break until at least April 10, and encouraging people who can leave dorms to go and not return.
UW Health said in a statement earlier today that they would only test people displaying the symptoms of COVID-19 for the disease, and would give preferential treatment to people in the community with medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to it.
But not all of Wisconsin’s most vulnerable residents have such flexibility, and not every event can be cancelled. In his speech, Governor Evers highlighted groups of people and events he believed were either at risk or could put people at risk.
“We have tens of thousands of folks in Wisconsin including kids and older adults who rely on schools and nonprofits in order to get those meals,” says Evers. “Ensuring that those folks are taken care of is a top priority. I’m also deeply concerned about the homeless individuals and other vulnerable individuals in our communities. Our team will continue to work with our local partners around the state to ensure that we’re able to support those folks who need our help. We’ve also got some important elections coming up, folks. The good news is that absentee voting in Wisconsin is really easy. I’m encouraging everybody who can vote early to ensure that your vote is counted and your voice is heard to take advantage of that.”
Under Wisconsin law, a request for an absentee ballot cannot be denied. In Madison the city clerk’s office announced it would be open for in-person absentee voting and voter registration today until 8:00 p.m. and tomorrow until 6:00 p.m.
Many of Wisconsin’s schools have more than 250 students, which could put them in violation of the guidelines. When asked about his policy relating to schools, Evers said they would be working to decrease the size of school gatherings. He says that he is changing his behavior to prevent infection, which involves avoiding contact with people, washing hands for twenty seconds with soap and warm water, and not touching your face.
“I know Wisconsinites,” says Evers. “We love to hug, we like to kiss, we love to be friendly, that’s why they call us what they call us: Wisconsin nice. Wisconsin nice is going to have to have a different look to it in the future.”
When Evers was asked whether they would be cancelling the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, he said they were monitoring the situation and considering their options. The convention, if it is not cancelled, will take place in July.