Update on 2019 novel coronavirus in Wisconsin

    Photo courtesy of Pixabay
    Photo courtesy of Pixabay

    The Wisconsin Department of Health Services continues to monitor suspected cases of 2019 novel coronavirus in the state, with just a single patient confirmed as having contracted the illness. That patient remains isolated at home, while a total of 15 people have been tested for possible exposure.

    “The good news is that of those 15, 13 have come back negative, one is still pending, and we have one case — as you know — who has been confirmed as positive,” explained Jeanne Ayers, State Health Officer and Administrator of the DHS Division of Public Health. This includes one new patient, since the agency’s prior update at the end of last week. Testing for the new patient may be complete within the next couple of weeks.

    “We continue to work with our federal and local partners to identify people who have traveled to China,” Ayers said, “or who have had contact with people who have been exposed to the 2019 novel coronavirus.”

    Since first appearing in the city of Wauhan, China, in December 2019, the virus has been linked to over 40,000 cases and over 900 deaths. Many of those are confined to mainland China, though over 300 cases have been reported outside the country, including 12 in the United States. Over 100 Americans across 26 states are currently being tested for the illness, with an American citizen having died due to 2019 novel coronavirus in China. A cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, has been on a 14-day quarantine which is set to expire on Feb. 19. Over 130 people on the ship have been been diagnosed with the respiratory illness, including 45 Japanese and 11 Americans.

    Nevertheless, “the risk of exposure in Wisconsin remains low,” said DHS communicable diseases epidemiology section chief Traci DeSalvo. In their search for possible patients, health officials are prioritizing people who’ve had contact with people who’ve contracted the virus, namely those who’ve recently traveled to China. Officials are also keeping track of those who’ve likely had contact with possible patients, such as members of a household or co-workers. At this time, officials are keeping the number of possible contacts related to the Wisconsin patient confidential.

    It’s also unclear how long a patient remains contagious after recovering from the 2019 novel coronavirus. When a person recovers from an illness, there’s a period of time when the body sheds the virus from their system. Although they may not be actively symptomatic, they may still present a contagion danger to those around them.

    Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a DHS chief medical officer, told Wisconsin Examiner that how long a person remains contagious as the virus leaves their body is, “a good question.” Because of the newness of the virus, he said, “we don’t have all the answers.” For people who’ve possibly been exposed to the virus, Westergaard stresses the importance of immediate testing, quarantine, and follow-up tests to determine whether the virus has fully left their system. “We try to understand that on a case-by-case basis and make that determination once someone is no longer a risk of spreading the virus. But in general, we don’t know sort of what the average or what the range is, because it’s too new.”

    Racial discrimination

    Health officials are also urging the public not to discriminate against people who look Asian because of the virus. “I think that whenever there is something new, and people are trying to understand it and figure out what their risk and hazard is, there is some inclination to try to make sense of what we know,” said Ayers. “And since this virus was first detected in China, and China is working hard to control and respond to an actual widespread outbreak, there is a natural inclination for some people in our communities to assume that it’s got something to do with people of that ethnicity. When in fact, it all has to do with where it was first detected, which was that geographic location.”

    If you haven’t been to China recently, or been within 6 feet of an infected person, then you have little to worry about. It has nothing to do with the race of people around you. “I want to emphasize that ethnic background has no influence on the risk of this virus,” said Ayers. “Only travel history, or direct contact with a case, puts someone at risk of exposure. So it’s extremely important to avoid placing stigma on members of our community based on race, or ethnic background.”

    Email scams

    DHS is also warning of a recent trend in scams related to the coronavirus, which has been reported by some local health departments. The scams may appear as emails, guiding the user to a link and asking for personal information. “What we’ve been told is they are  showing up via email so it looks like official notifications of something,” explained Ayers. “And then if someone clicks on it, they’re basically opening themselves up to a fraudulent fishing scam.” For state agencies like DHS, it’s not common practice to send emails to people asking for personal information. The agency does not have a count of how many reports of fraudulent messages have been received.

    “It is possible that a patient who was being monitored as someone who’s under investigation or a contact, who’s already working with a local health department, might be contacted via email for follow up by that local health department,” said DeSalvo. “But we, at the state health department, would not be sending out requests for information to the public.” DeSalvo stresses, “if you haven’t been talking to a local health department, they would not be emailing you out of the blue requesting information.”

    While 2019 novel coronavirus remains a concern in Wisconsin, residents are in more immediate danger of other illnesses, such as the flu. Hospitalizations for influenza have risen by 300% in Milwaukee compared to last season. “We encourage everyone to continue their healthy habits to prevent the spread of illness,” said Ayers. “And these include washing our hands thoroughly and often, covering our cough [and] staying home when we’re sick. In addition, do not forget that there is a flu vaccine available.” The Department of Health Services continues to monitor the situation, and updates can be found on this webpage.

    Isiah Holmes
    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.