New order bans mass gatherings; COVID-19 testing limited

By: - March 17, 2020 9:12 pm
Coronavirus COVID-19 up close

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) (Photo by U.S. Army Photo)

Bars must close, restaurants can only serve take-out meals, and with exceptions, gatherings of 10 or more people are banned under a new statewide public health order issued Tuesday as the number of active cases of COVID-19 continued to mount.

Wisconsin public health officials also are limiting tests for the illness caused by the novel coronavirus to these most vulnerable patients: 

  • critically ill people in intensive care with unexplained viral pneumonia or respiratory failure;
  • hospital patients with fever or symptoms including cough and shortness of breath, and who have known exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 patient or have traveled to an area with sustained community transmission of the illness; 
  • hospitalized patients with unexplained fever and symptoms of a respiratory tract illness;
  • health care workers with unexplained fever and respiratory illness symptoms, regardless of whether they’re hospitalized.

Andrea Palm, the secretary-designee of the state Department of Health Services (DHS), and Gov. Tony Evers announced the restrictions on mass gatherings and the prioritizing of testing at a media briefing Tuesday afternoon

“This is necessary to further stop the spread of COVID-19, and to protect the capacity of our health care system,” said Palm.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 72 people had tested positive in 11 counties in the state. The level of infection for the virus has now reached “community spread” in Dane, Milwaukee and Kenosha counties, said Palm, who issued the order on mass gatherings at Evers’ direction.

‘Community spread’ is the term used when people are testing positive for an illness when they have not had exposure to someone else known to have it, or have not traveled to a location where there already is community transmission occurring.

Health officials are advising that people outside the most at-risk categories who have symptoms — fever, cough and shortness of breath — do not necessarily need a test and instead should focus on isolating themselves from others, staying home and resting. 

“If you have these symptoms, call your health care provider before you go to a clinic or a hospital,” said Palm.

Mass gathering restrictions

The exceptions to the restrictions on gatherings of 10 or more people include health care, child care and educational institutions as well as workplaces and various government agencies. The gathering restrictions will be enforced by local law enforcement agencies.

Evers said the tentative April 6 end date for the state’s order last week closing schools was now being lifted, with the closing order in effect until the public health emergency is declared to be over. He also said that there was no consideration of ordering a curfew “at this time.”

But Evers also indicated he would not want to postpone the state’s April 7 general election for nonpartisan local and county offices as well as for the state Supreme Court and the presidential primary. Rather, he said, people should make use of the state’s absentee ballot system. 

On economic fallout from the pandemic, the governor said that on Wednesday he will issue an emergency order waiving the unemployment compensation job-search requirements for workers who are put out of their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. His order also will make workers who are out of work because of COVID-19, but would otherwise be eligible for jobless pay, considered “available for work” — a condition for receiving unemployment benefits.

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has a website with information on unemployment compensation policies with respect to COVID-19.

Evers said he also plans to ask Wisconsin Legislature leaders to pass legislation to waive the current one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits to begin, and that he would be seeking a package of other bills to address the impact of the COVID-19 illness. When the Legislature might meet to act will depend on the outcome of discussions he said he would seek on Wednesday.

A provision to eliminate the one-week waiting period was part of Evers’ 2019-2020 budget proposal but was eliminated by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The week waiting period was added to state law by Republicans shortly after Gov. Scott Walker took office.

In addition, Evers said he would direct the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp and Wisconsin Emergency Management to work with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to ensure access for Wisconsin businesses to federal disaster loans.

Asked whether he would have to formally declare a disaster for the state to unlock those funds, Evers said, “We believe we can access [them]. If it means that we’ll have to make a declaration to do that, we’ll do that.”

Testing capacity

Dr. Allen Bateman, assistant director of the communicable disease division of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that while the state’s testing capacity had expanded, the demand for testing had also grown, putting pressure on  capacity. 

The state lab is one of two public health labs conducting COVID-19 tests; the other is the Milwaukee Public Health Department laboratory. Additional private labs are joining the effort, and more are expected to do so over the coming weeks and months. 

With more labs across the nation marshaling to conduct testing for the virus, “the supply chain [for testing materials] right now is fragile,” Bateman said, which is necessitating more stringent prioritization for testing. 

One consequence is that for people who may have less severe symptoms of COVID-19, testing might not be available, and not considered essential.

“As it spreads in the community, we want to do everything we can to reduce the strain on the health care system,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases. “If your symptoms are mild and you don’t have medical complications or chronic diseases that put you in a high risk category, you don’t necessarily need a test.”

With those patients, he continued, “It’s actually protective of our health care system and our health care workers to keep them at home,” where they can recover in a week or 10 days. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and 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.