UPDATE: Dane County schools to close Monday

Wisconsin COVID-19 caseload rises to 33 people in eight counties; schools statewide to close by Wednesday

Gov. Tony Evers and Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm
Gov. Tony Evers and Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm at a news conference on COVID-19 3/12/20

Updated 3/15/2020 at 3:50 p.m.

All Dane County schools will close effective Monday, by order of Public Health Madison & Dane County on Sunday.

Also Sunday, the public health agency barred meetings of 50 or more people, and recommended that gatherings of fewer then 50 take place only if necessary.

The number of people who have tested positive for the new coronavirus responsible for the illness known as COVID-19 rose to 33 on Sunday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) reported.

Late Friday afternoon, at the direction of Gov. Tony Evers, DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm issued an order to close all public and private K-12 schools in the state starting Wednesday, March 18. The governor had already  issued an executive order Thursday declaring a Health Emergency in the state. At that point the number of positive cases in the state stood at 19. The number rose on Saturday to 27.

The newly identified cases on Sunday included five in Fond du Lac County and one in Milwaukee County.

The statewide school closing date of Wednesday was set “in order to give school districts ample time to make plans for kids, families, educators, and staff,” a statement from the governor’s office said, although school districts have the discretion to close earlier. The order sets a tentative reopening date of April 6, but that is subject to change.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued guidance on how schools that close could continue providing meals for low-income students participating in the federal school meal program. 

President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Friday as well.

Also on Friday, the DHS issued new guidelines for long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living homes, to limit the spread in those locations. People over 60 are among those who are considered more vulnerable to the illness.

The long-term care guidelines include restrictions on visitors, screening visitors for COVID-19 symptoms or exposure, preventing employees with fever or respiratory-infection symptoms from working, and canceling social gatherings and community events in long-term care homes.

“This is all about preventing the spread of Covid-19, and it is very important that we are all in this together,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, Department of Health Services deputy secretary at a Friday afternoon media teleconference.

Willems Van Dijk said DHS is urging parents to consider potential childcare alternatives when  their children’s schools close. Noting that many families rely on grandparents to provide child care, “we would add a level of caution to that,” she said, because “most grandparents are over the age of 60” and therefore at higher risk from complications from COVID-19. 

As of Sunday afternoon, patients who have tested positive include six from Dane County, 11 from Fond du Lac County, three from Sheboygan County, seven from Milwaukee County, three from Waukesha County, and one each from Pierce, Winnebago and Racine counties. 

So far there’s been little information about how individual people have contracted the illness. Some are thought to have gotten it traveling elsewhere in the U.S. where the virus has been spreading in the community. An unspecified number of people who tested positive took part in a cruise in Egypt, DHS officials said, leading the department earlier this week to urge anyone who has traveled on an Egyptian cruise recently to self-quarantine and notify public health officials — and if they have symptoms, to seek testing.

For others who have tested positive, the main risk factor appears to have been exposure to others in the community with the illness. 

DHS officials confirmed one of the Dane County residents has recovered and one is hospitalized. Beyond that, however, “We don’t have specific clinical information about the cases right now,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases. 

DHS also doesn’t have demographic information about the people who have tested positive, except that the majority are adults. 

Westergaard said it is not yet certain whether the illness confers long-term immunity and therefore what the likelihood of relapse might be.

The state’s capacity for testing remains strong and there is not yet any indication of a backlog, he said. Testing is now available from two state public health labs as well as a growing number of private laboratories. “We expect the capacity statewide to continue to go up,” Westergaard said.

Samples to be tested are taken by a patient’s local medical provider and then sent to testing labs for analysis. 

Medical providers do not have to get permission from DHS to seek a test, Westergaard said. But under DHS and federal guidelines, the highest priority for testing are people with symptoms who have “a high risk of negative health outcomes,” he said, or people who have been exposed to known cases of the illness or who have traveled to areas where the disease is widespread. 

The primary symptoms of the illness include a fever of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a cough and shortness of breath. 

In other COVID-19 related developments on Friday:

  • The state Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) issued a statement reminding state residents of Wisconsin’s price-gouging statute. The law, with some exceptions, forbids selling goods during a declared emergency for prices more than 15% above pre-emergency prices.
  • Milwaukee County Circuit Court canceled jury call effective Monday, March 16 through at least April 3. 
  • Events around the state were cancelled Friday, including high school performances and sporting events, the Wisconsin Film Festival, and the Broadway musical Wicked, along with all other performances through April 13 at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.
  • The Wisconsin Public Service Commission directed electric, natural gas and water utilities in the state to stop shutting off services to customers until the Public Health Emergency Ends. The directive also requires utilities to reconnect customers already shut off.
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.