Learn More About The Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19 And Wisconsin
Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 6 and has since been updated, with the most recent changes made on March 24.
The respiratory disease known as COVID-19 is spreading around the world. For people in Wisconsin who are interested in better understanding the pandemic, how it spreads and the ways they can protect themselves and their families, here are explanations for common questions and additional resources.
1. What is COVID-19, what causes it and how does it spread?
COVID-19 is a serious new respiratory illness that emerged in central China in late 2019 and has since spread to scores of nations.
The disease was first identified in the U.S. on Jan. 25, 2020, with the first infection in Wisconsin announced on Feb. 5. On Feb. 25, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. could be very serious. Cases across the U.S. rapidly increased into the thousands in March. The agency is tracking cases in the U.S., with information about cases, deaths and where potential infections are being tested.
The disease is caused by a novel coronavirus. This type of virus can cause several types of illnesses, including dangerous diseases like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), as well as the common cold. COVID-19 infection can have relatively mild effects, but it causes more severe illness among some patients who contract it, and the disease is fatal in a small percentage of cases. The World Health Organization officially designated the name of the new virus as SARS-CoV-2, and on March 11 declared the widening public health crisis to be a pandemic.
The virus is understood to primarily spread through close contact between people via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Some people who are infected but do not appear to be ill are able to spread the virus, but it is thought that the sicker an individual is, the more contagious they are. People may also become infected after touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or possibly their eyes.
2. What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath. These symptoms can begin to appear two days to two weeks after initial exposure to the virus.
A majority of people diagnosed with COVID-19 have mild or moderate flu-like symptoms. The risk of serious cases increases with age and for people with underlying medical conditions or who are immunocompromised.
3. Who is at risk of catching COVID-19?
Anybody who is exposed to the novel coronavirus may be at risk of contracting COVID-19, which is spreading in communities around the U.S.
People in communities where the virus is spreading have an elevated risk of exposure, according to the CDC. People at high risk of exposure include healthcare workers and those with close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.
4. What is the status of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and around the world?
Numerous cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Wisconsin. State, federal and international public health agencies are working to provide up-to-date online information about the status of COVID-19:
- The Wisconsin Department of Health Services maintains a COVID-19 informational page with guidance for the general public and healthcare workers. The agency also maintains an outbreaks and investigations page where members of the public can follow the status of testing and cases in the state.
- The CDC maintains a list of states that are reporting COVID-19 cases and deaths.
- The WHO issues regular situation reports about the number and locations of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and information about public health protocols and research being conducted around the world.
The number of cases in Wisconsin started growing rapidly during the second week of March.
Wisconsin Public Radio is publishing day-by-day updates about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on life in the state: March 24, March 23, March 22, March 21, March 20, March 19, March 18, March 17, March 16, March 15, March 14, March 13, March 12.
Public health researchers around the world are also tracking the pandemic, with Johns Hopkins University maintaining an interactive global map of COVID-19 cases, fatalities and recoveries.
5. What can people do to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic?
The CDC recommends people emphasize basic hygiene practices like proper handwashing to reduce their risk of infection. Other prevention practices include avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth, staying home when sick, avoiding close contact with those who are sick, appropriate sneezing and coughing etiquette, and frequently disinfecting objects and surfaces that are regularly touched.
The WHO and CDC recommend the use of medical face masks by people who are coughing or sneezing or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Additionally, the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends that healthcare workers and home caretakers wear N-95 masks to reduce the risk of infection.
Other ways to prepare for a local outbreak are centered on making plans with daily life being disrupted. These preparations include being ready for self-quarantine or shelter-in-place orders, having a ready supply of prescription medications, and having a couple weeks of shelf-stable food items on hand.
6. How does COVID-19 testing work in Wisconsin and who can get tested?
Wisconsin initially relied on testing kits from the CDC to identify COVID-19 cases. The state is conducting tests at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene and Milwaukee Health Department, while multiple private labs are providing supplemental testing capacity. On March 16, state health officials announced that testing was also being conducted on a limited basis by some private healthcare providers that developed their own COVID-19 tests.
As the number of cases in the state has grown, demand for testing has outstripped capacity, both in the state's public testing facilities and among private labs. On March 17, state health officials announced more restrictive testing guidelines that prioritize patients who are hospitalized with serious symptoms and healthcare workers who exhibit symptoms.
Healthcare workers in Wisconsin are using guidance from the state Department of Health Services on who to prioritize for testing. The state allows clinicians to use their discretion on who should be tested.
On March 6, the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance issued a bulletin asking health insurers and other health plan providers to "identify and remove barriers to testing and treatment" for COVID-19. On March 13, the state health department declared that testing for COVID-19 in Wisconsin would be free, with possible exceptions at some private labs. On March 19, the federal government enacted a COVID-19 relief package into law that included a provision for free COVID-19 testing nationwide.
7. What is the state doing to respond to COVID-19?
On March 24, Gov. Tony Evers issued a stay-at-home order, intensifying an existing ban on all gatherings in Wisconsin. Set to run through April 24 unless otherwise altered, the order barred public and private gatherings of any size outside of individual households. It also required businesses deemed non-essential to healthcare, childcare, food provision, transportation, finance and a select few other services to close or require employees to work from home. The order maintained prior restrictions requiring salons, barbers, day spas and similar businesses to close and restaurants and bars in the state to shutter dining rooms (with takeout and delivery still allowed). The move came after some municipalities had already ordered the closure of most public accommodations.
The state requirements followed a declaration of a public health emergency in Wisconsin in response to the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. The order authorized the Department of Health Services to remove regulatory and logistical barriers to the procurement and distribution of vital medical supplies, including personal protective equipment and ventilators. The order also activated the Wisconsin National Guard, with troops transporting dozens of Wisconsin residents home from California, where they had been stranded on an infected cruise ship, and subsequently mobilizing to provide assistance to the state or local jurisdictions if requested.
The state has secured federal funding to address the pandemic and is seeking additional resources, including medical supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile.
On March 13, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in response to COVID-19. The declaration allows the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to waive or modify some federal healthcare regulations to aid a speedier response.
Public health officials in Wisconsin began mobilizing for a possible local outbreak of COVID-19 even when the epidemic remained mostly confined to China. As the disease has spread, Wisconsin officials started preparing for potential surges in demand for medical care, as well as for the need to isolate patients and quarantine individuals who have been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.
8. How are hospitals, health clinics, emergency responders and other healthcare facilities like nursing homes responding to COVID-19?
Hospitals and other healthcare facilities in Wisconsin are preparing for an increase in patients who may need care and testing for COVID-19. These efforts include seeking to stock enough N95 respirators, gowns, gloves, eyewear and other necessary medical equipment to provide adequate care. Hospitals across the state have reported shortages of medical face masks and other necessities, and are implementing protocols to conserve their available supplies and share resources with other facilities.
Hospitals are also canceling elective procedures and restricting visitation of patients. By March 17, Veterans Administration hospitals and clinics in the state, including in Milwaukee and Madison, had banned most visitors.
These efforts are aimed at protecting patients and healthcare workers from infection and at boosting the capacity of hospitals to care for an influx of COVID-19 patients. A major fear is that a steep rise in cases could swamp hospitals. Healthcare professionals are pleading residents to heed public health guidance and remain at home as much as possible in an effort to slow the disease’s spread.
Madison-based UW Health offers an informational hotline for individuals with medical questions about the illness. The hotline number is (608) 720-5300.
Medical and dental offices in the state are screening patients before their visits and asking them to reschedule appointments if they show any respiratory symptoms. Some dental offices in the state are also temporarily closing.
Emergency responders across the state are preparing for possible calls for mutual aid in the event of a wider community outbreak, while 911 dispatchers in Milwaukee County are screening callers for COVID-19 symptoms.
9. How are schools responding to COVID-19?
Gov. Tony Evers issued an order mandating the closure of all public and private K-12 schools in the state beginning March 18, though it left open the option for individual school districts to close earlier. Some districts announced closures that were effective immediately. The order set a tentative reopening date of April 6, though Evers said closures would remain in place through the duration of the public health emergency.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has provided pandemic information to districts, including guidance related to closures, for students who have recently traveled, and for how to talk with children about the risks of COVID-19. The uncertainties and disruptions surrounding COVID-19 may be particularly alarming for children, and parents are recommended to share information and answer questions.
Multiple UW System campuses and private universities have halted on classroom instruction, encouraged students to move from dormitories, canceled university-sponsored travel, and have suspended spring commencement plans. University officials are also urging students, faculty and staff to reconsider all non-essential travel plans.
Scientists at UW-Madison are commencing research on the virus in collaboration with the state hygiene lab and other researchers elsewhere.
10. What recommendations do public health officials have for workplaces, public gatherings and travel?
Officials from the state Department of Health Services are mandating that people to work from home if possible unless they are employed in an essential sector. On March 24, the agency intensified an existing ban on public gatherings, prohibiting all public and private gatherings of any size outside of individual households, with the exception of some facilities considered critical infrastructure. The ban is expected to have a major impact on business in the state and jobless claims have skyrocketed.
The pandemic is also affecting both domestic and international air travel. Many nations have closed their borders, and the land borders between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico have been ordered to close to most traffic. On March 19, the U.S. State Department warned Americans against all international travel.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an emerging, rapidly changing public health situation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is providing updated information and guidance as each becomes available. WisContext, PBS Wisconsin and Wisconsin Public Radio are continuing to report on COVID-19 and its status in Wisconsin. Ongoing coverage is available here.