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71 people who went to the polls on April 7 got COVID-19; tie to election uncertain
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71 people who went to the polls on April 7 got COVID-19; tie to election uncertain

Election Day with COVID-19

Town of Dunn resident Robert Wilson prepares to vote at the town's highway garage in the April 7 election. Voters and poll workers were encouraged to wear masks and take other precautions after efforts to delay the vote amid the COVID-19 pandemic failed.

A total of 71 people got COVID-19 after voting in person or working at the polls during Wisconsin’s April 7 election, a state official said Friday, as two new studies present a mixed picture on whether the election contributed to the spread of the coronavirus.

The 71 figure is the “final number,” state Department of Health Services spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said. As DHS indicated earlier with previous tallies, it’s not clear how many of the infections may have been caused by the spring election because many of the people had other exposures, Miller said.

A new study by researchers at UW-Oshkosh and Ball State University, using mobile device location data from San Francisco-based SafeGraph, found that counties with more in-person voters per voting location had significantly higher rates of COVID-19 transmission after the election than counties with lower voter density.

On average, an additional 100 people per polling station doubled a county’s COVID-19 positive case test rate two to three weeks following the election, the study found. The consolidation of voting locations may have contributed to the increase in positive testing rates by increasing voter density in polling locations, the researchers said.

Counties with higher absentee voting participation had lower rates of detecting COVID-19 two to three weeks after the election, the researchers said. After removing two counties from their analysis — Brown County, which had an outbreak at a meatpacking plant in Green Bay, and Milwaukee County, where there were long lines to vote in the city of Milwaukee on Election Day — they still had the same conclusions.

“Our hypothesis suggests that in-person voting is most associated with the incidence of new COVID-19 cases through higher numbers of voters in each polling location,” the researchers wrote. “However, it is also likely that the simple number of in-person votes in a county matters as well.”

Given the results, “it may be prudent, to the extent possible, that policy makers and election clerks take steps to either expand the number of polling locations or encourage absentee voting for future elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic,” they wrote.

Different take

Another study, by researchers at the University of Hong Kong and Stanford University, found “no detectable surge” in COVID-19 from the election.

It involved an analysis to “reconstruct” the state’s coronavirus epidemic curve to look at dates of infection instead of when cases were reported. The researchers also said hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Wisconsin declined after the election.

They wrote that “there is no evidence to date that there was a surge of infections” from the election.

‘Preprint’ studies

Both studies, like another one the Wisconsin State Journal reported on last month, are “preprint” studies that have been submitted for publication in a scientific journal but not published yet. That means the methods may not have been scrutinized as much as with published studies. Preprint studies, while controversial among scientists, have become more common, especially in research involving COVID-19.

The earlier study, 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.

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

Prior to the election, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislative leaders initially agreed in-person voting should go on. But Evers the day before the election pushed the vote back to June, a move the Supreme Court struck down hours later.

Many have wondered whether in-person voting increased the spread of the coronavirus, especially in Green Bay and Milwaukee, which had few polling stations that drew long lines of people.

In another election Tuesday in northern Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional district, 48% voted absentee, down from 56% who voted absentee in the district April 7, according to the Associated Press. Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany won the race.

State health officials haven’t tracked 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, which the Supreme Court struck down this week. The gathering drew an estimated 1,500 people.

Of nearly 2,000 cases of COVID-19 with an onset or diagnosis after April 26, 72 involved people who said they had attended a large gathering, which may have included the protest, DHS said last week.

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