Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese, flanked by local government and health care personnel, discusses plans to address coronavirus during a news conference in Eau Claire Friday.  (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese, flanked by local government and health care personnel, discusses plans to address coronavirus during a news conference in Eau Claire Friday. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Still only 1 coronavirus case in Wisconsin, 12 tests pending

Public health officials across Wisconsin said Friday they are preparing to increase the number of coronavirus testing sites as part of their preparation for a possible outbreak, but they also urged the public not to panic. 

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, of the 44 cases investigated in the state since the beginning of February, only one test has been positive. Twelve tests are still pending, and 31 were negative. State health officials did not reveal the locations of those tested. 

DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said while more state residents are being tested for the virus, the risk of Wisconsin residents contracting it remains low. The number of people tested is expected to rise in coming days and weeks, she said, as people who unknowingly come in contact with someone who has the virus come into Wisconsin. She said her department is working with health care providers to expand the number of testing sites across the state.

Currently, coronavirus tests in Wisconsin are being conducted at two sites: the state Hygiene Lab in Madison and at the Milwaukee Health Department.  

“The risk of contracting this virus still remains low,” Palm said, acknowledging public concerns about coronavirus, in part because it is highly contagious. 

Nursing home residents are especially at risk, Palm said, given their age and often-compromised immune systems. State health officials are working with nursing home staff statewide, she said, and will conduct an online training session on Monday in preparation of a potential outbreak at those sites.  

“We are very concerned about the older folks in those settings,” she said, noting coronavirus-related deaths in Washington nursing homes.

Coronavirus has spread in other U.S. locations, and Wisconsin officials are working to develop a coordinated plan of action to address the virus, Palm said. She urged families to develop a backup plan for childcare, and to stock up on such staples as food, water, and prescription medications in case of a test result that requires a two-week quarantine period.

Concerns about the contagious virus have grown since the virus was first detected in China. According to the World Health Organization, more than 100,000 people worldwide have been infected with coronavirus. COVID-19, the infection caused by coronavirus, has led to more than 3,300 deaths around the world, most of them in China. In the U.S., 240 infections and 14 deaths have been confirmed, and new cases of the virus continue to pop up across the country. 

The coronavirus outbreak has prompted pandemic fears around the globe, prompting travel restrictions, economic concerns and a stock market slide. President Donald Trump on Friday morning signed a $8.3 billion emergency spending package to combat the virus. Wisconsin is expected to receive $10 million of that funding initially, Palm said. 

At a news conference Friday morning in Eau Claire to address coronavirus, Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said her department has been meeting since December and working with other community organization, such as city, school district and health care leaders, to plan for a possible outbreak. No cases have been detected in the Eau Claire area, she said.  

“We are working closely with our community partners to have a plan in place,” Giese said, noting her department also is in contact with state public health officials and is closely monitoring coronavirus-related information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We want people to know we have a plan in place. We don’t want them to panic.”

Despite the assurances of public health officials, some Wisconsin residents expressed concern about coronavirus. Green Bay resident Larry Jacobson said he worries the virus will continue to spread because of its contagious nature. 

“You look at what has happened already, how the number of cases and deaths is growing, and yeah, I’m worried,” he said. 

Giese acknowledged the contagious nature of the virus and said she “would not be surprised if we see it in Eau Claire at some point.” But the health department’s partnership with a broad group of community groups hopefully will prevent a widespread outbreak if the virus makes its way to the Chippewa Valley, she said. 

A multi-agency plan in place for many years to address possible outbreaks ensures a rapid response to such a situation, she said. If that does happen, schools, UW-Eau Claire and other institutions will follow a predetermined protocol “to ensure we keep everyone as safe as possible,” she said.  

Palm said her department is working with state officials who oversee nursing homes, prisons, schools and the tourism industry to ensure policies are in place to halt the spread of the virus.

Last week officials with the UW System decided to send home 223 students from study abroad programs in North Korea and Italy because of coronavirus outbreaks in those countries. The decision was made to bring home students studying in South Korea and Italy late last week after the CDC raised the threat level in those countries to a level 3. All non-essential personnel are to avoid traveling to Level 3 counties due to the high risk of a pandemic.

Public health officials emphasized washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough and staying home if you are sick to prevent contracting the virus.