Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 8:38 AM EDT Mar 13, 2020
The new normal has begun.
Wisconsin, and the nation, appeared to reach a tipping point this week in response to the spreading coronavirus known as COVID-19, a serious, new disease now characterized as a pandemic.
Wisconsin’s governor declared a public health emergency Thursday. Universities and colleges have extended spring breaks and moved to online classes. Major league sports, college basketball tournaments and concerts in stadiums and arenas have been postponed or canceled outright.
Even Milwaukee’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade canceled festivities after organizers held out longer than their counterparts in Boston, Chicago and Ireland.
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Officials say they are acting to try to prevent the virus’ spread to vulnerable populations, including seniors and those with underlying health conditions, and to stop a mass outbreak that could overwhelm health care systems.
So far, nearly all public school districts in the state have remained open, though parents and employers have been told to be prepared for the possibility of closures.
“I want to assure everyone that those affected are receiving the best possible care and that all steps are being taken to stop the spread of this virus,” Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday.
Evers declared a public health emergency after six people in Wisconsin tested positive for the respiratory virus and after a growing number of cases in surrounding states.
The move enables the state’s Department of Health Services to stock up on medications and supplies, allows for state money to be funneled to local health departments and authorizes the Wisconsin National Guard to assist in the response.
“The risk to the majority of Wisconsinites remains low,” Evers said. “That said, we can all do our part to help prevent the spread of the illness to others.”
Confirmed coronavirus cases
Wisconsin has eight confirmed cases of coronavirus in Dane, Pierce, Fond du Lac and Waukesha counties.
One person has recovered. The others are in isolation at home and are being monitored by local health officials.
Six of the people were exposed to the virus while traveling, said Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm. Two new cases in Dane County announced Thursday were people who had contact with a county resident who had tested positive earlier this week, marking the first time Wisconsinites contracted the disease in the state.
In addition, the Wisconsin National Guard will be helping 37 residents return to the state from a Princess Cruise Ship vacation where they may have been exposed to the virus. Those individuals will self-quarantine for two weeks at home, Palm said.
People who contract coronavirus — also known as COVID-19 — can have a range of symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath, and the virus can cause severe illness and pneumonia, especially among vulnerable populations. Symptoms may appear two to 14 days after infection, or not at all.
There currently is no vaccine, and health experts say the best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to the virus in the first place.
The World Health Organization has estimated the virus’ death rate as about 3%, but other experts said the rate could fall as testing becomes more widespread and officials have a better idea of how many people total are infected. The rate also varies widely based on age, health and geographic location.
The number of confirmed cases in Wisconsin likely will rise as testing becomes more widespread. Nearly all health insurers plan to waive deductibles for tests for the coronavirus when deemed medically necessary.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has said the city’s lab can run about 25 to 30 tests per day and he wants the capacity to run 300 to 500 tests per day.
The Wisconsin state health lab can perform several hundred tests for the virus each day and state officials are in “constant communication” with private labs, Palm said.
“We think very soon we will be beyond the current capacity that we have for testing,” she said. “We are asking and working with the federal government to replenish our supplies so that as a state, we have the resources we need to do the testing we need to do.”
Social distancing: The reason all these events are canceled
The main way coronavirus spreads is when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes — meaning it can spread easily in places where a lot of people congregate, like rallies, parades or concerts.
Because of that, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued new guidance Thursday recommending all gatherings of 250 or more people be canceled or postponed.
So, the Milwaukee St. Patrick’s Day parade? Canceled. Concerts from Michael Bublé, Kenny Chesney and Dan Shay? Rescheduled. Nearly every major sporting event? Suspended or postponed. Even Milwaukee’s archbishop has dispensed Catholics from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass.
Although the WIAA state girls basketball tournaments went on with significantly limited attendance, the boys tournament — set for next week — is in doubt after the Kohl Center on the UW-Madison campus said it could not use the venue.
And Thursday night, Elmbrook School District became the first in the Milwaukee area to suspend in-person instruction, starting Monday.
The governor and first lady are no longer attending large events and are refraining from hugs and handshakes with supporters, visitors and dignitaries.
“Wisconsin Nice is going to have a different look to it in the future,” said Evers, asking that others follow their lead.
Also on Thursday, the state Elections Commission gave county clerks permission to relocate polling places for the April 7 election and changed how people in nursing homes will be allowed to vote early to protect against the virus.
The virus can stay on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days, so it’s possible to become infected if a person touches their face after coming in contact with the virus on a surface, according to the World Health Organization.
Still, the virus is far more likely to be spread through a cough or a sneeze.
“What we’ve seen around the globe, what we’ve seen here in the United States, is that a couple of cases can quickly become many cases,” Palm said.
How long will this last?
Many of the postponed events have been moved into April or May, a similar time frame given for online learning at many Wisconsin colleges and universities.
For organizations and schools, the plan seems to be to reassess the situation on a regular basis, and Milwaukee leaders have said there are no plans to cancel the 2020 Democratic National Convention, scheduled for July.
For now, the health guidance provided several weeks ago remains the same: Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly, avoid touching your face, cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze, stay home if you feel sick and practice social distancing and avoiding crowds, especially if you have symptoms.
Wisconsin health officials also encouraged residents to plan ahead and prepare a two-week supply of food, prescriptions and other necessities.
“This advice is not intended to encourage the hoarding of supplies, but to keep you from having to go to a public place in the event that you become ill and need to isolate at home for two weeks,” Palm said.
Officials also have said they understand not everyone is able to do that.
On Thursday, Evers said it was a priority to assist the thousands of Wisconsinites who rely on nonprofits or schools for their meals and other vulnerable populations, such as homeless individuals.
“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,” he said.
Molly Beck, Patrick Marley, Piet Levy, J.R. Radcliffe, Devi Shastri, Annysa Johnson, Alison Dirr, Guy Boulton, Curt Hogg, Evan Casey and Ricardo Torres of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Contact Ashley Luthern at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aluthern.