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 May 14.
The respiratory disease COVID-19 is present around the world. For people in Wisconsin who are interested in better understanding the pandemic and the ways they can protect themselves, their families and their communities, 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 subsequently spread around the world.
The disease was first identified in the U.S. on Jan. 25, 2020, with the first infection in Wisconsin announced on Feb. 5. Cases across the U.S. rapidly increased over subsequent months, reaching more than 1 million by the end of April. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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. These types of viruses 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 can be fatal. 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 face.
2. What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
The most common symptoms of COVID-19 include cough and shortness of breath. People with two or more of the following symptoms may also have COVID-19: fever, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, or a new loss of taste or smell.
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. Additionally, many infected individuals may not show symptoms but nonetheless could spread the virus through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing.
4. What is the status of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and around the world?
Numerous cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Wisconsin and the disease is spreading in communities. 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 Wisconsin Hospital Association is tracking data related to COVID-19 hospitalizations and availability of beds, personal protective equipment, ventilators and more around the state.
- The CDC maintains state-level data about 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 has published day-by-day updates about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on life in the state:
- April: April 16, April 15, April 14, April 13, April 12, April 11, April 10, April 9, April 8, April 7, April 6, April 5, April 4, April 3, April 2, April 1
- March: March 31, March 30, March 29, March 28, March 27, March 26, March 25, 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 in response to 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 whenever possible, maintaining 6 feet of physical distance from others in public, avoiding contact with those who are sick, practicing appropriate sneezing and coughing etiquette, and frequently disinfecting objects and surfaces that are regularly touched.
The WHO and CDC recommend the use of face masks by people who are coughing or sneezing or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. 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.
In early April, the CDC began recommending that healthy people wear tight-fitting cloth face coverings while in public settings where physical distancing recommendations are difficult to adhere to, such as at grocery stores and pharmacies. The new mask guidance maintains that medical-grade masks and respirators be preserved for use in healthcare settings, and the state has set up a donation and exchange system to facilitate acquisition of badly needed personal protective equipment and other medical supplies.
The CDC maintains that physical distancing remains the best way to slow the virus's spread.
Other ways to respond to a local outbreak are centered on being ready as daily life is 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. What is the state's public health response to COVID-19?
Public health officials in Wisconsin began mobilizing for a possible local outbreak of COVID-19 in January when the epidemic remained mostly confined to China. As the disease spread, Wisconsin officials prepared for potential surges in demand for medical care, as well as for the need to isolate patients and quarantine individuals to slow the spread of COVID-19.
On March 12, Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency in Wisconsin, which would run 60 days until May 11. That declaration authorized the state 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.
Due to a growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, the Evers administration issued a stay-at-home order on March 24, intensifying an existing ban on all gatherings in Wisconsin. This order was originally set to run through April 24. On April 16, the governor extended the stay-at-home order through May 26.
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. Although the order does not require residents to receive permission to leave their homes, law enforcement agencies across the state have said they are prepared to enforce restrictions on individuals and businesses that flout the rules. Penalties could include up to 30 days in jail, a fine of up to $250, or both.
On April 20, the Evers administration unveiled a plan for easing movement restrictions and reopening more workplaces in Wisconsin. Dubbed the "Badger Bounce Back," the plan calls for easing restrictions gradually and sets benchmarks for doing so. These benchmarks include a sustained downward trajectory in new illnesses, expanded COVID-19 testing and beefed up contact tracing, among other criteria. The plan followed the administration’s extension of the stay-at-home order and amid efforts by Republican leadership in the state Legislature to challenge the action before the state Supreme Court.
On May 13, justices ruled 4-3 in favor of the challenge and struck down the stay-at-home order extension. The decision, which took immediate effect, invalidated the order and made it unenforceable. Instead, the ruling stated the Evers administration would need to work with the state Legislature's rulemaking committee when crafting future orders.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision came less than 48 hours after Evers' original public health emergency order expired, leaving no statewide orders in effect in response to COVID-19. Instead, county and municipal health departments were left to set local guidance, issuing stay-at-home orders for many of the state's most populous regions that largely reflected the invalidated statewide order. The patchwork of local regulations remained in flux as of May 14.
The state's public health emergency order also activated the Wisconsin National Guard. Troops first transported dozens of Wisconsin residents home from California after being stranded on an infected cruise ship. Guard forces subsequently mobilized to provide assistance to the state or local jurisdictions. Troops acted as poll workers for the April 7 election, and have assisted with the pandemic response, including at testing centers, treatment sites and medical supply warehouses, and stand ready to fill in staffing shortages at the state Department of Corrections.
At the federal level, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13. That declaration allowed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to waive or modify some federal healthcare regulations to aid a speedier response. On April 4, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced aid would be available to Wisconsin after granting the state's request to declare COVID-19 a major disaster.
The state has secured federal funding to address the pandemic and is seeking additional resources, including medical supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile. The state has received part of its request.
7. How does COVID-19 testing work in Wisconsin and who can get tested?
Tests for COVID-19 are available at numerous locations across Wisconsin, including hospitals, healthcare clinics and temporary testing locations. The state originally started conducting tests at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene and Milwaukee Health Department, which were followed by dozens of private labs.
Demand for testing outstripped the capacity of labs in Wisconsin during the outbreak's early weeks. The limited availability of testing through Wisconsin's public health system spurred many private health providers to develop or purchase their own COVID-19 tests. These actions significantly expanded the number of tests being conducted in the state, though shortages of supplies remain an issue.
On March 30, Gov. Tony Evers announced a partnership with Wisconsin-based technology and healthcare companies aimed at strengthening testing supply chains and quickly doubling the number of COVID-19 tests performed each day. As a result of expanded testing capacity, state health officials announced April 10 that they were relaxing previous guidelines that called for restricting COVID-19 tests to hospitalized patients, healthcare workers, residents and workers at long-term care facilities and high-risk individuals.
In early May, local public health officials worked with the state and National Guard to set up temporary community testing sites where anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 could be tested, with some sites drawing large numbers of residents. But testing remained uneven across the state, as areas in northwest Wisconsin lagging behind more populous parts of the state.
Wisconsin enacted a COVID-19 response package on April 15, which requires health insurers to cover COVID-19 testing and bars insurers from discriminating against people with the disease or who have recovered from it. It also ensures Wisconsin qualifies for newly available federal Medicaid funding. The federal government also enacted a COVID-19 response package that included a provision for free COVID-19 testing nationwide.
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 treating patients who have contracted 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 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 have restricted visitation of patients. In order to prepare for a surge in cases, hospitals also canceled elective procedures, though by late April a number of health systems in the state were restarting or planning for this type of treatment once again.
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 with residents to heed public health guidance and remain at home as much as possible in an effort to slow the disease's spread.
Medical offices in the state have screened patients before their visits and are asking them to reschedule appointments if they show any respiratory symptoms. Dental offices temporarily closed, but are planning on resuming operations.
Emergency responders across the state have prepared for possible calls for mutual aid, and responders in rural areas are changing how they operate and are worried about receiving the resources they expect to need, including personal protective equipment.
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. In its extension of the stay-at-home order on April 16, the state announced schools would remain closed for the remainder of the academic year, and some school districts moved forward with pass-fail grading scales for students given challenges posed by virtual learning. The state Supreme Court's May 13 ruling invalidating the state's stay-at-home order did not affect school closures, which the majority said could remain in effect without clear explanation.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has provided pandemic information to districts, including guidance related to closures 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.
UW System campuses and private universities halted classroom instruction, encouraged students to move from dormitories, canceled university-sponsored travel, and canceled spring commencement ceremony plans. Some Wisconsin colleges moved toward pass/fail grading for the spring 2020 semester, and a number of public and private universities in the state planned to refund students tens of millions of dollars associated with room and board and campus fees.
10. What recommendations do public health officials have for closing and reopening workplaces and public gatherings, and for the status of travel?
Officials from the state Department of Health Services are mandating that people 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 WHO has developed a set of conditions it recommends should be met before officials begin relaxing restrictions on gatherings and public movement as the pandemic progresses and local outbreaks begin to subside. Wisconsin's plan for a stepped approach to easing restrictions largely mirrors these conditions.
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.