At least nineteen Wisconsin residents have thus far tested positive for COVID-19 after voting in person or working at the polls during the state’s April 7 election, which Gov. Tony Evers had attempted to postpone, due to concerns about spreading the disease. But that effort was blocked by legislative Republicans.
The number of known cases was provided in an email sent late Tuesday afternoon by Jennifer Miller, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health Services (DHS), in response to an information request.
“Public health officials continue to interview people who have tested positive with COVID-19 and query whether someone has reported voting in person or working at the polls,” Miller noted. “Since we only have data on positive cases (without a comparison group of people who were not tested or tested negative), there is no way to know with certainty if any exposures at the polls that are reported are in fact attributable to COVID-19 illness.”
Indeed, she noted, several of the nineteen people who tested positive for COVID-19 after participating in the election “reported other possible exposures as well.”
Still, the number of cases in which a person tested positive for COVID-19 after voting on April 7 is an important metric for gauging the extent to which the election may have made things worse.
On Monday, health officials in Milwaukee County confirmed that at least seven people—six voters and one poll worker—appear to have contracted COVID-19 through activities related to voting on April 7, after state Republicans turned to their allies on the Wisconsin Supreme Court to block Evers’s effort to delay the vote.
Voters in Milwaukee and Green Bay endured long waits to vote at a reduced number of voting places, defying the advice of health officials in order to exercise their right to vote.
Symptoms of COVID-19 typically appear within two weeks of exposure to the virus, meaning that any cases involving persons who contracted the virus would be showing up around now.
Officials in Dane and Brown counties, which include the cities of Madison and Green Bay, respectively, have said that they currently see no evidence that recent spikes in newly reported cases are tied to this vote.
At a media briefing on Monday, DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm made a similar statement. “We have not yet seen indications of an impact from the election,” Palm said. “We will continue to monitor that.”
Palm made no reference to the Milwaukee cases and did not provide a number for COVID-19-positive residents who took part in the vote.
According to numbers released daily by DHS, the state has recorded more than 2,000 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 4,620, between April 7 and April 21. A total of 150 Wisconsinites have died from the virus during this time.
State health officials have said they are asking each newly diagnosed person questions to determine where they may have contracted the virus, specifically including whether or not they voted in person on April 7. The state is using April 9 as a benchmark, the earliest date that individuals who contracted the virus while voting could be diagnosed.
“We will continue this important work to ensure that every case is followed up on, contacted, and anyone who may have been exposed, notified,” Palm said in a statement issued on April 9. “We hope the extraordinary efforts taken by local clerks, public health, voters, and poll workers helped minimize any transmission, but we stand prepared to respond if that isn’t the case.”
Gov. Evers had attempted to postpone the election, but the Republicans who control the state legislature appealed to the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court, who ordered the election to go forward.
The Republicans were hoping that a low-turnout election might help their chances of electing a GOP-backed ultraconservative Supreme Court candidate, Justice Daniel Kelly, who nonetheless lost by double digits to Judge Jill Karofsky, a Democratic Party-backed Dane County judge and former victim rights advocate.
Kelly, an appointee of former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, was an ironic candidate in the age of COVID-19, given his long track record of expressing contempt for the very idea of government helping people in need.
“It is true that there will always be people who need help,” Kelly wrote in 2012. “I believe Jesus said as much. But to the extent we conclude from that datum that government must intervene, we do a disservice to those we are supposedly helping, as well as the people from whom we are stealing to provide the ‘help.’ ”
Karofsky will not be sworn in until August 1, meaning that Kelly will still be able to rule on a lawsuit filed yesterday by legislative Republicans demanding an end to the protective measures being put in place by Evers. The Republicans claim the governor’s extension of stay-at-home rules through May 26, in the words of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), “goes beyond the executive branch’s statutory powers.”
Evers, in response, referred to the lawsuit as a “power grab by legislative Republicans.”
“People’s lives should always come first, not politics and power,” Evers told reporters on Tuesday. “Legislative Republicans, frankly, have said to the people of Wisconsin, ‘Our power, our political power, is more important than your health.’ ”
This story was first published in The Progressive magazine.