Wisconsin health officials have confirmed a third person in the state, and the second in Dane County, has tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Officials with the state Department of Health Services and Public Health Madison and Dane County said Tuesday that the person was exposed while traveling in the United States and is being isolated at home. The incident is considered separate from the county’s first case of COVID-19 last month.
On Monday, officials announced the state’s second case of COVID-19, in a Pierce County resident, who also was exposed while traveling within the United States and is isolated at home.
Health officials did not provide further details on the individuals or where they had traveled, but said they visited places with community spread of the disease.
“Pierce and Dane counties are now doing contact tracing to determine who those patients have had contact with and determine if they, too, should be tested and isolated in order to contain the illness and prevent it from spreading further,” State Health Officer Jeanne Ayers said. “The news of new confirmed cases is not unexpected.”
According to a statement from SSM Health in Madison, the second Dane County patient returned from traveling last weekend and reported symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and was directed to the nearest Dean Medical Group Urgent Care location. Results from UW-Madison’s Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene came back positive on Monday.
Health care officials recommend anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms with a travel history to countries or states with active coronavirus outbreaks to call in advance before going to a clinic. Symptoms can be mild or severe and include fever, cough or shortness of breath.
The state’s first case of COVID-19, a Dane County resident, was released from isolation late last month after recovering and testing negative twice.
“While we have a new person with coronavirus, the risk for getting sick from coronavirus remains low in Dane County,” Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County, said in a statement.
However, state officials recommend residents avoid non-essential travel, especially to areas where the virus has been spreading, including Seattle, Washington; northern California; Florida and New York City.
Officials said the Pierce County patient attended an event at Osceola High School on Saturday before testing positive for the virus. Officials said the risk is low to those who attended the event.
The Osceola district was closed Tuesday as a precautionary measure for “deep cleaning” after the event, said Traci DeSalvo, chief of Wisconsin’s communicable diseases epidemiology section.
In response to the two confirmed cases of coronavirus in Dane County, the Madison School District has imposed a temporary restriction on any out-of-state travel for district staff and student events, including meetings, conferences and field trips.
UW-Milwaukee announced Tuesday that the university’s spring break starting March 15 would be extended an additional week. Faculty and staff are being asked to use the extra week to prepare to move the majority of classes online once spring break ends March 29.
The university also said a UW-Milwaukee Foundation employee was tested Monday for coronavirus at a local hospital, though test results will not be known until the end of the week. The employee worked in an office connected to a residence hall. Officials “strongly discouraged” any travel outside of Wisconsin through the end of the semester.
No state of emergency
State officials have said the disease has not reached the point where they needed to declare a public health emergency, which would direct more state funding to local health departments for costs related to quarantine and isolation of people who have or are suspected of having the disease.
Ayers said a potential tipping point would be the emergence of an unexplained case with no known point of contact, or a patient who is known to have had widespread contact with residents.
“That’s on my list for one of the considerations that would trigger us to move to this level,” Ayers said. “At this point we want to say we know this is happening in the world, we know that this is happening in the country. We expect that this outbreak will reach Wisconsin, and when our conditions on the ground change, we will be asking for that kind of an emergency declaration.”
Wisconsin last called a public health emergency in 2009, during the outbreak of H1N1, or swine flu.
Health officials have said the best way to combat the spread of the virus is through traditional respiratory disease prevention methods: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, avoid shaking hands with others, cover coughs and sneezes, routinely clean surfaces, stay home when you’re sick and get plenty of rest.
“We’d like to just encourage the general sentiment in Wisconsin residents ... that we’re going to have to do things slightly differently if we want to minimize the impact,” said Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of the Bureau of Communicable Disease. “The particularly challenging thing about this virus is that many people, in fact the majority of people, who get infected are going to have minimal symptoms and are going to feel OK.”
Election contingency plans
Anticipating what could happen in the weeks to come, Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell advised municipal clerks to update contingency plans for the April 7 spring election and presidential primary in case there is a shortage of poll workers, who tend to be older.
He also advised clerks to secure backup locations for roughly 10 polling stations located in health care facilities, which McDonell expects may close their doors to the public, and advised clerks to be alert for “bad actors” who might try to take advantage of chaotic or stressful situations.
Voters in high-risk groups, such as the elderly or those with chronic diseases, should request absentee ballots be mailed to them.
“There is plenty of time for that,” McDonell said.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission previously sent clerks CDC guidelines for preventing the spread of the disease.
State and local officials have broad authority to cancel local events and impose quarantines on individuals to stop the spread of the coronavirus, if necessary, although state health officials say they aren’t immediately planning such action.
“That’s many steps down the road from where we are at at this point,” Ayers said.
It’s not clear whether authorities could impose a geographical quarantine. Still, the law is broad, giving local health officials the authority to “promptly take all measures necessary to prevent, suppress and control communicable diseases.”
Similarly, it gives the state Department of Health Services the authority to “promulgate and enforce rules or issue orders for guarding against the introduction of any communicable diseases” as well as “for the quarantine and disinfection of persons, localities and things infected or suspected of being infected.”
The department could, for example, set up surveillance and inspection systems to detect disease, close public places and forbid public gatherings.
Health officials could also order people to get vaccinations or require the isolation or quarantine of a person who is unable or unwilling to be vaccinated, although no vaccine for the new coronavirus has been approved or even tested yet. Health officials can also require the isolation of an infected person and quarantine his or her contacts, as well as hire guards to enforce a quarantine order.
Those who don’t comply with quarantine orders could face fines or imprisonment.
In 2018, for example, a Waukesha County man quarantined to his home because of concerns about measles exposure was charged with a misdemeanor for violating public health orders after he left his home to go to the gym.
State Journal reporters Chris Hubbuch and Kelly Meyerhofer contributed to this report.
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