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Wisconsin health officials warn of elevated cases of sickness, death, if state doesn't act aggressively

Wisconsin health officials warn of elevated cases of sickness, death, if state doesn't act aggressively

Gov. Tony Evers and state health officials Tuesday justified the latest expansion of COVID-19 restrictions with sobering data that show the potential for profoundly higher growth in the spread of the disease if the state doesn’t embark on an aggressive approach.

Earlier in the day, Evers enacted a ‘safer at home’ order that closed all businesses except those deemed essential in an effort to slow the disease to a level that wouldn’t overwhelm the state’s health care capabilities, which would likely result in more death.

Officials also urged people to have contact with no more than five people in a day.

Evers’ order plunges the state into a month-long freeze on normal social activities, taking effect at 8 a.m. Wednesday and scheduled to end on April 24, unless superseded by another order. His announcement comes after earlier statements that he didn’t think such measures, in place now in more than a dozen states, would be necessary.

“I’ve said all along in this process that this is a fluid process and that I would listen to the science and public health experts to make the best decision possible for people in the state,” he explained Tuesday.

The rules exempt a wide array of businesses providing essential goods and services. Food production, from farms to shipping to people that stock shelves, will continue unabated. Other exempt businesses include take-out food operations, gas stations, hardware stores, Laundromats, construction firms, banks, pharmacies, hotels and educational institutions providing online learning during the outbreak, among others. 

Religious institutions are exempt as long as functions don't include 10 or more people.  

Businesses ordered to close include malls, playgrounds, gyms, clothing and sports retailers, golf courses, salons and entertainment venues. 

Officials stressed that getting outside for recreation and exercise is not discouraged. The Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday it was waiving fees to state parks, but encouraged people to adhere to social distancing guidelines. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, COVID-19 has claimed five lives in the state and were 457 confirmed cases of the disease, which officials believe to be a significant undercount of how many are actually infected as testing remains below optimal levels and many are likely carrying the disease asymptomatically.

At an online press briefing, Andrea Palm, secretary designee of the Department of Health Services, cited scientific modeling based on other countries where the spread of the novel coronavirus has outpaced initial government responses.

"If we continue down our current path, without implementing safer-at-home to flatten the curve, the models show us that we would likely have 22,000 Wisconsinites who are positive for COVID-19 by April 8, and an estimated 440 to 1,500 deaths,” she said.

Palm said the numbers were derived by taking into account the experience of other countries where initial government responses weren’t enough to avert a disastrous overburdening of the health care systems.

Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the Bureau of Communicable Diseases, said there could as many as 10 people infected for each one who tests positive because 90 percent of those infected don’t have symptoms severe enough to seek care.

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“So we have hundreds of (confirmed) cases in the state, but it could potentially be thousands right now,” he said.

Palm said she’s dispatching 60 public health officials around the state to do “contact tracing,” or tracking down those who have been in contact with people infected by the virus, in an attempt to slow the spread.

Teams have also been formed to deal with surges in the healthcare system, shortages of medical supplies and personal protective equipment, lab capacity, isolation facilities and childcare for healthcare workers.

Evers’ order prompted criticism from state Republicans worried about the vast economic fallout, which includes a skyrocketing number of unemployment claims. More than 69,000 claims were filed last week, compared with 5,216 during the same week in 2019. Sunday and Monday alone saw more than 32,000 more claims filed.

“A decision of such magnitude like a ‘shelter-in-place’ order, regardless of what the government calls it, should only be established through the surety and specificity of an act of the legislature because of its extreme effects on Wisconsin families and businesses,” said state Sen. Dave Craig, R-Big Bend, in a statement on Monday.

In a joint statement on Monday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, dinged the governor for not effectively communicating why the order was made.

The Republican pushback comes as President Donald Trump expressed a willingness to scale back restrictions on person-to-person contact even as the spread of the often deadly respiratory disease accelerates.

“We’re opening up this incredible country,” Trump said Tuesday at a Fox News “virtual town hall” event. “Because we have to do that. I would love to have it open by Easter.”

Trumps’ statements over the past two days has brought a swift rebuke from several public health officials.

“I’ve heard some people question why we’re doing this when there are only 457 cases and five deaths in a state as large as Wisconsin,” Palm said. “Our state benefits from the experience of others who have come before us in this pandemic. Our experts are comparing our data to the Wuhan and Italy experiences to predict what is likely to happen here in Wisconsin.”

Evers acknowledged concerns about the economy.

“Obviously we want a strong economy,” he said. “Who the hell doesn’t? But the fact of the matter is we have to value human life at some point at a higher level.”

In a critique of the federal response to the pandemic, Evers said shortages in crucial medical supplies like masks, gloves and gowns for healthcare workers need to be handled on a national scale.

“The federal government does have a role to play in this,” he said. “We’re hoping they will taking a more active role in coordinating this. It makes no sense for New York and Wisconsin and California and Illinois to be competing with each other for supplies.”

He noted that the Wisconsin Dental Association has supported the COVID-19 fight by donating 20,000 masks, 25,000 protective gloves and 1,700 gowns, which will be distributed to strapped health care facilities around the state.

Evers’ order bans all travel except for that deemed essential, such as grocery shopping, trips to the pharmacy and getting needed supplies.

It’s unclear how enforcement of the new rules will be carried out, but penalties for unnecessary travel, dinner parties, sleepovers and other social get-togethers are possible. The order authorizes law enforcement to impose sanctions of up to 30 days in jail or a $250 for violations, but Evers said police will not be actively seeking people who are flouting the law.

To some degree, officials are putting the state on the honor system.

“I recognize that a lot of folks out there have had questions about the order, and I recognize that this is a difficult time for our state and our country,” Evers said. “At the end of the day, folks, we are all in this together.”

Palm also addressed the emotional stress that the coming weeks of social isolation will inflict.

“This COVID-19 pandemic and changes in your life and your lifestyle can make anybody anxious and even depressed,” she said. “Do not hesitate to ask for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed.”

A state crisis helpline is at 800-985-5990, or people can text “talk with us” at 66747. Other resources are on the state COVID-19 webpage.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.

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