State ramps up testing capacity for COVID-19

Employers urged to review absence policies, insurers to waive co-payments for tests

Hand sanitizer sits on a table during a news conference with healthcare workers at the National Nurses United offices in Oakland, California. The National Nurses United held a news conference to express concerns that the Centers for Disease Control is not doing enough to help protect and test healthcare workers who are exposed to patients with the COVID-19 virus. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Hand sanitizer sits on a table during a news conference with healthcare workers at the National Nurses United offices in Oakland, California. The National Nurses United held a news conference to express concerns that the Centers for Disease Control is not doing enough to help protect and test healthcare workers who are exposed to patients with the COVID-19 virus. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The number of people in Wisconsin who are being or have been tested for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus now spreading worldwide, had risen to 44 as of Friday. To date only one person in the state has tested positive, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS).

“We want to assure Wisconsin residents that the risk of getting COVID-19 still remains low,” said Andrea Palm, secretary-designee at the state Department of Health Services, at a department media teleconference Friday afternoon.

Data posted by DHS Friday showed 31 tests have been negative while results for another 12 are pending.

Saturday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner told reporters that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public health laboratories combined had tested 5,861 people for the illness so far, while an unknown additional number may have been tested by other labs. The governors of New York and Utah declared states of emergency.

On Friday President Donald Trump signed legislation authorizing $8.3 billion in funding to combat the coronavirus, with money going to the CDC as well as to the states.

Palm said the first distribution of those funds, $600 million, would include about $10 million for Wisconsin. The funds would be used to ensure adequate state and local staffing to conduct lab testing and to trace contacts of people who test positive for the disease so as to curb its spread, among other purposes.

Testing is being conducted at two locations, using samples submitted by local doctors from around the state: the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Milwaukee Health Department.

“We expect that in the coming weeks to months, many other labs in Wisconsin will be able to test,” said Dr. Allen Bateman, assistant director of the state lab’s communicable disease division. The state lab will work with other laboratories to help them start testing, Bateman said.

Also on Friday, the state Office of Commissioner of Insurance (OCI) issued a bulletin to health plans asking them to waive patient copayments for COVID-19 testing and to review how ready they and their provider networks were to respond to new cases of the disease.

“Costs should not be a barrier to people receiving necessary treatment,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the situation and take the necessary steps to address this evolving public health challenge.”

Bateman said the state lab has the capacity to test up to about 100 samples a day, and so far the workload is within its capacity. DHS, working with the two current lab sites, must authorize the tests based on criteria including severe symptoms of a respiratory illness in the patient as well as known exposure to a person who has been confirmed with the illness or travel to an area known to harbor the illness, said Traci DeSalvo, chief of DHS communicable disease epidemiology section.

People who are tested are placed in quarantine for 14 days, even if their test turns up negative, against the chance that they might develop the illness later in the isolation period.

There is no treatment yet for the illness beyond the conventional over-the-counter remedies for cold or flu, DeSalvo said, and prevention continues to focus on hygiene, which is also standard prevention for conventional colds and flu.

“There’s a lot of seasonal respiratory viruses going around, including influenza,” DeSalvo said, “and one of the things we recommend is that people stay home when they’re sick in addition to really good, thorough handwashing and covering those coughs and sneezes.”

DHS is also encouraging employers to address workplace absence policies in ways that do not discourage employees from staying home if they are ill, said Palm.

“We want to make sure that we are doing things that facilitate the kinds of activities that prevent the spread of this disease,” she said. “And that includes the way businesses and employers deploy a sick policy. And so we are really encouraging businesses and employers to look at their policies to think about it in the context of helping reduce community spread, if that becomes an issue here in the state of Wisconsin.”

Personnel in DHS and in the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) have been in daily contact to discuss how schools should plan in the event of a virus outbreak, and have been encouraging local schools to prepare for that possibility, Palm said.

In the event of a diagnosis at a school, the response would depend on the number of people with whom a person had been in close contact — defined as 6 feet or closer for “a prolonged time” — as well as where in the school the individual had been, said DeSalvo. Local public health departments would have the authority to close a school if deemed necessary, but that would not be automatically required.

People have little reason to worry about products from China or other countries where the virus is widespread, she added, because the virus doesn’t appear to linger on surfaces.

“The main driver of this outbreak is human-human transmission,” DeSalvo said. “So really what we’re looking at is how we prevent people from spreading to others.”

DHS has a general information site on COVID-19 that includes links for providers, advice for school districts, employers, and individuals, and other information. 

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.