Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin's chief medical officer and epidemiologist, speaks Friday during a coronavirus briefing. (Screenshot via Wisconsin DHS)
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin's chief medical officer and epidemiologist, speaks Friday during a coronavirus briefing. (Screenshot via Wisconsin DHS)

Death toll at 13 from new total of 842 COVID-19 cases

If Wisconsinites continue to effectively practice social distancing, the coronavirus pandemic is expected to reach its peak in Wisconsin in two to three weeks, the state’s top infectious disease expert said during a Friday briefing where it was announced the state’s COVID-19 death toll has risen to 13 after 842 positive cases so far.

“The best-case scenario right now would be that we see a peak in the next two to three weeks,”  said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the state’s chief medical officer and epidemiologist. “And that’s really what we’re going for, because a good number of people have been infected already in an asymptomatic degree. Right now is the critical time to implement ‘Safer at Home.’”

Without Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-home order, the peak would likely have come sometime in summer, Westergaard said. But the stay-home order won’t have an immediate effect.

“It will likely be several weeks before we start to see the results of those efforts,” said Andrea Palm, secretary-designee of the state Department of Health Services.

On Thursday, the United States flew past China to become the country with the most confirmed cases as cities like New York and New Orleans have seen a level of outbreak that Wisconsin has so far avoided.

Because coronavirus is transmissible by people who have not shown any symptoms, Westergaard said there could be as many as 10 times more Wisconsinites infected than is currently confirmed. 

“Even if we see a doubling between now and a week from now with cases, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not doing the right thing,” Westergaard said. 

And amid calls for the state to postpone the April 7 election or hold it by mail only, Evers instead called for the Legislature to pass a bill to immediately send an absentee ballot to every registered voter in the state.

Evers and Republican leaders have repeatedly dismissed the calls to delay, and he framed his position as bipartisan.

“I don’t care who gets the credit,” Evers said. “I just want to make sure everyone gets a chance to cast their ballot this April.”

Evers also announced an emergency order suspending evictions and foreclosures for the duration of the emergency. He first announced the suspension about an hour before the call. During the briefing, he stressed that the order was intended to only help those without means.

“This order does not in any way relieve a person’s obligation to pay their rent or mortgages,” Evers said.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump suggested federal officials may begin classifying U.S. counties by levels of risk of infection. Evers practically balked at the proposal.

“The president actively wants to articulate a policy that I don’t believe is going to be workable at the state level,” he said.

Westergaard added: “I would characterize the risk in all Wisconsin counties as high right now.”