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67 got COVID-19 after visiting polls in state's April 7 election but tie to voting unclear
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67 got COVID-19 after visiting polls in state's April 7 election but tie to voting unclear

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Election Day with COVID-19

Workers donned masks in Dane County's town of Dunn for the April 7 election. 

At least 67 Wisconsin residents got COVID-19 after voting in person or working at the polls April 7, but it’s not clear how many infections may have been caused by the spring election because some had other possible exposures, the state Department of Health Services said Thursday.

State health officials aren’t tracking whether COVID-19 cases may have resulted from an April 24 protest at the state Capitol against Gov. Tony Evers’ extended “safer at home” order. The gathering drew an estimated 1,500 people.

“Contact tracers do ask if patients attended mass gatherings, but not specifically about protests, so there’s really no data on who may have contracted COVID-19 at a protest,” DHS spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said.

Capitol Police didn’t cite any protesters for violations of the order, even though many appeared to breach the order’s social distancing requirement of staying 6 feet away from other people. The city of Madison has issued six citations and 70 warning letters to people or businesses for other alleged violations of the order.

As of Thursday, Wisconsin had 9,215 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 374 deaths.

The tally of 67 COVID-19 cases potentially related to the April 7 election comes a month after the election and on the last day health officials said contact tracers would ask about the election when following up on new cases.

The 67 people tested positive for COVID-19 after April 9 and developed symptoms by April 21, the end of the presumed two-week incubation period for the coronavirus, DHS spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt said.

Milwaukee update

A report released Wednesday by Milwaukee County said 26 people in that county may have been infected while at the polls April 7 and another 26 may have been infectious when voting or working at the election. It’s not clear how many of the 26 who may have been infected are included in the state’s count of 67.

The Milwaukee County report said it might be difficult to determine whether in-person voting April 7 contributed to significant spread of COVID-19.

“In particular, the increase in testing capacity during this time and the overall decreasing trend in cases starting around the time of the election complicate interpretation,” said the report by the Milwaukee County COVID-19 Epidemiology Intel Team.

A study last month led by a Milwaukee doctor found rates of new confirmed COVID-19 cases didn’t increase in Wisconsin compared with the rest of the country after the April 7 election, though some individual cases could be tied to voting.

Critics said the study, which has been submitted to a scientific journal but not published, had limitations such as a lack of statistical testing.

1.5 million voters

More than 400,000 state residents voted in person April 7, with another 1.1 million casting absentee ballots.

Prior to the election, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislative leaders initially agreed in-person voting should go on as scheduled despite the COVID-19 pandemic. But Evers issued an executive order the day before the election pushing in-person voting back to June, which the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court struck down within hours.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling allowing ballots to be mailed in after Election Day, which likely caused more people to vote in person. Many have wondered whether in-person voting increased the spread of the coronavirus, a question particularly raised for Milwaukee, which had only five polling stations that drew long lines of people.

Next up

An election is scheduled for Tuesday in the 7th Congressional District in northern Wisconsin, to fill a vacancy left by Republican Rep. Sean Duffy, who resigned from his U.S. House seat in September. More than 93,000 absentee ballots had been requested as of April 30 in a district with 420,500 registered voters.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission said it has distributed masks, gloves, wipes and hand sanitizer to polling places.

State Journal reporter Chris Rickert contributed to this report.

Photos: Wisconsinites vote in spring election despite COVID-19 dangers

More than 400,000 residents of Wisconsin voted in person on April 7.

More than 400,000 residents of Wisconsin voted in person on April 7.

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