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19 spring election voters, poll workers contract COVID-19 coronavirus; ties to election uncertain
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19 spring election voters, poll workers contract COVID-19 coronavirus; ties to election uncertain

From the The COVID-19 pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest local news on the coronavirus outbreak series

State health officials said 19 voters and poll workers in April’s spring election tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus afterward, but caution they can’t say for certain whether election exposure was the cause.

“We are not able to say that their exposure was necessarily at the polls because they are all people who could have had exposure in other places,” Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said. “We have correlation — they voted and they were at the polls — but we do not have causation.”

The disclosure comes after a precipitous increase of 225 COVID-19 cases in a single day, the most in the state so far, as state health officials tied nearly 150 coronavirus cases to a Green Bay meatpacking plant on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Dane County reported no increase in cases Wednesday for the first time since March 11, but is bracing for a large gathering at the state Capitol on Friday for a rally against Wisconsin’s extended stay-at-home order. The event is still on, even though a permit to hold it on the Capitol grounds has been denied.

Wisconsinites may never know definitively whether the election caused a significant spread of the respiratory disease.

People typically begin experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 within 14 days of exposure, meaning Tuesday was likely the last day people who worked at or voted in-person in the April 7 election would have experienced symptoms, although there may be some lag time due to testing.

Health officials are not conducting a widespread survey of all people who voted at the polls, but contact people who had close proximity with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 as part of normal protocol. Willems Van Dijk said the state plans to notify local officials if a poll worker or voter at a particular site tested positive for COVID-19.

Public health agencies discover potential links among cases of infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, tuberculosis or foodborne illnesses such as salmonella or norovirus, by interviewing people who become ill or test positive, and asking where they’ve been and with whom they’ve been in contact. Through contact tracing, health agencies talk to those who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive and see if they develop symptoms.

In addition to the 19 people who tested positive for COVID-19 after participating in the election, the state’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, said five National Guard members who had worked at the polls April 7 reported symptoms of COVID-19 afterward. One person tested negative, while the other four haven’t yet been tested. More than 2,400 National Guard members worked at the polls.

Recent surges

Counties across the state have reported recent surges, but so far, only Milwaukee health officials have attributed some cases to the April 7 in-person election that health experts warned posed a risk of spreading the disease. Voters in Milwaukee and Brown counties experienced significantly longer lines than most other parts of the state.

The Brown County Health Department said 147 employees and family members of workers at JBS Packerland meatpacking plant in Green Bay have tested positive for COVID-19. There were also 39 cases tied to American Foods Group in Green Bay and another 19 to sausage maker Salm Partners in Denmark, about 20 miles away.

All of the Green Bay-area facilities remain open, even though meatpacking plants experiencing outbreaks in other states have closed down.

In Milwaukee, which has seen about 50 new cases a day the past week, officials identified seven people who appear to have contracted the coronavirus through activities related to the April 7 election.

Dane County reported 17 new cases Monday, the largest increase in nearly three weeks. Most of those cases were inmates at the county jail, and no connection to the election has been found, officials said.

Establishing a connection between positive COVID-19 cases and exposure during the election would take further epidemiological study, health experts said. Patrick Remington, professor emeritus at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, said health officials would need to first determine the proportion of people who voted out of the total number of people who tested positive for COVID-19 during the time frame in which they could have exhibited symptoms from the April 7 election, or roughly two weeks.

Then, they would need to find out the proportion of people who voted among those who don’t have COVID-19. If the odds of having voted were bigger among the people who tested COVID-19 positive, then there would appear to be a risk associated with voting.

Still, Remington said health officials already know that gathering in large groups increases the risk of spreading contagious disease, so a study on voting isn’t exactly necessary.

“Whether or not we see a bump in the cases potentially attributed to gathering together, we just know it was a risky thing to do,” Remington said.

Protest still on

A protest planned for Friday would be the latest in a string of events across the country against stay-at-home orders opponents say are damaging the economy. It has the potential to be the largest yet in Wisconsin — as of Wednesday, more than 3,300 people said on Facebook that they are going and 12,000 were interested.

Organizer Madison Elmer applied for a permit with the state Department of Administration on April 14. Capitol Police on Monday denied the permit because the gathering would violate the order barring gatherings of any size.

Elmer pledged to forge ahead, despite the risk of being cited by law enforcement.

“I think our message is bigger than that to be worried about it,” Elmer said.

When asked to comment about enforcement actions, spokeswoman Molly Vidal said the mission of Capitol Police is to protect civil liberties, which includes freedom of speech and assembly. Gov. Tony Evers has said he respects the protesters’ free speech rights, but that he also hopes they maintain a safe distance from one another.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: A look at how COVID-19 is affecting Wisconsin