Wisconsin health officials expand COVID-19 testing as new case is confirmed

By: - March 10, 2020 7:53 am
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)

As testing continues for novel coronavirus, abbreviated as COVID-19, health officials caution that increased testing shouldn’t alarm the public. Since test kits were issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two labs have made themselves available to administer tests at the request of Wisconsin healthcare officials.

“These lab tests are in addition to the tests currently conducted at the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene, and the Milwaukee Health Department Lab,” said Julie Van Dijk, Department of Health Services (DHS) Deputy Secretary. She also noted that, “guidance for administering tests for COVID-19 have changed, and warned that the number of people tested for the virus is expected to climb.

“While we understand that the increased number of tests may seem alarming, tests don’t necessarily mean infections,” said Van Dijk. “Having more people tested helps our efforts, and the efforts of our local and tribal health officers, to contain the spread of COVID-19, if or when a test result is positive.” One of the biggest tips health officials continue to give the public is to maintain good hygiene practices, particularly washing your hands and staying home if you’re sick. COVID-19, part of the same group of illnesses as the common cold, appears susceptible to disinfectants as well as simple soap-and-water washing.

Increased testing comes as the second Wisconsinite is confirmed to have the virus in Pierce County. The person was exposed while traveling, and is currently isolated at home. “With a second confirmed case in our state we continue to urge state residents to take precautions to avoid illness,” said State Health Officer Jeanne Ayers. “As guidance is evolving, it’s important for people to monitor the DHS and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) websites for the latest information on COVID-19.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced legislation to provide immediate sick leave for private sector workers in light of the coronavirus outbreak. It builds off the Healthy Families Act (HFA), and is spearheaded by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

“As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, we should help ensure workers can take paid sick leave to protect themselves, their co-workers and their families,” said Senator Baldwin. “No worker should have to choose between protecting their health, or paying their bills. We need to pass this legislation right now to give our workers the resources they need to care for themselves and keep our communities safe from this public health threat.”

At this point, 19 U.S. states have either confirmed or are testing for possible cases of COVID-19. Over 100,000 cases have been reported worldwide, with the death toll now topping 4,000 people since the outbreak first began in China. American anxieties over the illness have been steadily rising since cases and deaths were reported in Seattle. Cases have also been reported in California, including one 60-year-old woman who died after being hospitalized for several weeks. A cruise ship which had an outbreak of COVID-19, the Grand Princess, docked in a California port on Monday.

Large sporting events and festivals have been canceled across the globe. Wisconsin health officials have no  specific recommendations for event closures. Wisconsin has had just two confirmed cases so far. The first person infected had recently traveled to China, and recovered after being quarantined at home. There are more possible cases of exposure are being investigated in the city of Milwaukee, though no cases there have been confirmed.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer for DHS’s Bureau of Communicable Diseases, noted that a good portion of the new U.S. cases don’t have an identifiable travel history. “So while overall the number of cases is still low, what this means is that the risk of person-to-person transmission in the United States has increased,” said Westergaard.

“Having said that, there are still things we feel like we can do to contain the spread of the virus and our efforts are still really in the phase of identifying individuals, doing the public health work to identify contacts,” and providing patients with the services they need, he added.

“The other thing that we are requesting is that healthcare providers report to us when they’re ordering those tests,” said Traci DeSalvo, Communicable Diseases Epidemiology Section Chief for DHS, “so that public health can have an idea of the people who are being tested and be doing appropriate follow-up with those individuals.”

Westergaard explained that DHS is moving away from approving cases on an individual level before tests can be submitted. “Rather,” said Westergaard, “clinicians can use their judgment to perform testing for COVID-19, send appropriate clinical specimens to one of the labs, and report the patient’s specific information to us so we can monitor and be prepared to do contact tracing in the event that there’s any positive cases.”

A memo has also been issued to medical partners of the DHS statewide regarding some high-priority individuals for testing. New cases suggest that transfer is occurring within communities rather than coming from recent travelers.

The virus sequence, which reveals to medical experts the virus’ structure and how it works, was provided by Chinese scientists and was used to produce the first batch of test kits.

Westergaard told Wisconsin Examiner that the sequence represented “extraordinarily valuable information for developing vaccine and identifying the structure of virus that can lead to candidate vaccine, which can then be used later in clinical trials.”

Although COVID-19 is the new kid on the block, and experts are still learning about it, health officials note that the state and national response to the virus is the result of an ongoing process of learning how to deal with contagious outbreaks that include Ebola, H1N1, and other diseases.

“I think every outbreak is a learning experience,” Van Dijk told Wisconsin Examiner. “We will take this experience and continue to learn how we can do better as a public health system, next time, how our medical care system can do better.”

“We are always in the mode of preparation and thinking about how we address pandemic influenza, or other pathogens,” he added, “as well as other natural disasters that could affect us.”

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Isiah Holmes
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, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.