A nasal swab is conducted at a mobile COVID-19 test sites to check for coronavirus
A nasal swab is conducted at a mobile COVID-19 test sites to check for coronavirus (Shutterstock image)

As Pence visits Wisconsin, congressional reps and local officials deliver a message: testing can’t pick up without adequate resources

One day after Gov. Tony Evers announced his plan to ramp up COVID-19 testing statewide, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and other Wisconsin lawmakers called on President Donald Trump to provide more resources for that effort. 

In a letter to Trump, Baldwin and U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, said more testing is necessary to better gauge the extent of coronavirus’ spread before Evers’ “Safer at Home” order can be lifted. 

“We all know that the path forward must be guided by putting science and public health first,” they wrote in a joint letter. “At present, no national plan exists from your White House to provide our state with the resources and supplies we need to conduct widespread testing to identify those who are infected, isolate positive cases, and safety trace all contacts so the spread of the virus can be contained.”

Wisconsin lacks testing supplies and personal protective equipment needed to boost testing efforts, the legislators said. They urged the president to tap funds via the Defense Production Act to expand testing in Wisconsin and the rest of the United States. 

“In order to put people back to work and reopen businesses, we need your administration to step up and provide Wisconsin with the guidance, supplies, and PPE we need to conduct widespread testing,” they wrote. 

The letter was also timed to coincide with Tuesday’s La Crosse visit by Vice President Mike Pence who  claimed about 150,000 COVID-19 tests are being conducted daily in the nation. Public health experts have said that figure needs to be at least 500,000 if parts of the country are to be safely reopened by mid-May.

Evers is one of several governors from both parties who are publicly critical of the Trump administration for the lack of resources needed to meet the benchmarks set down by the White House for some activities to resume.

More COVID-19 testing is necessary before easing existing stay-at-home regulations and slowly reopening businesses, schools and public activities, Evers said. On Monday the governor issued a news release detailing plans to boost testing across the state. Before reopening communities, the state must administer about 12,000 tests daily, he said.

Evers on Monday also issued an order dubbed the “Badger Bounce Back” plan spelling out a detailed process for a phased-in reopening of businesses, schools and public gatherings that is dependent upon a 14-day decline in positive COVID-19 cases along with increased testing, tracing and tracking of the virus.  

However, testing sites across the state report they lack not only swabs and ingredients to conduct COVID-19 tests but enough healthcare workers to conduct tests as well as an ongoing shortage of personal protective equipment.

The state Department of Health Services has increased testing capacity significantly in recent weeks, growing the number of testing sites from eight a month ago to 36. Those sites have a testing capacity of 7,238 tests daily, another figure that has grown significantly. 

But public health officials said only about half of that number are tested because of a lack of testing materials, staff, and challenges transitioning from a more restrictive policy to one that tests more groups of people. 

“There is definitely a need for more testing, but there are hurdles in place that are keeping that from happening as much as we would like to see,” said Brian Kaczmarski, Polk County Health Department director. 

Kaczmarski said he backs the effort to boost COVID-19 testing, action needed to better track the illness and prevent further spread. As of Monday 4,499 Wisconsin residents had tested positive for COVID-19 and 230 had died.

Besides more testing, additional tracing and tracking of the virus is needed to contain its spread, Kaczmarski said. Doing so will be especially important as Evers’ “Safer at Home” order is lifted and people begin frequenting businesses and attending their workplaces and other public settings, he said. 

“Right now, with people staying at home, when someone is reported as a positive for having contracted the virus, tracking the people they have had contact with is relatively easy,” Kaczmarski said. “When we reopen society, the number of people someone may have had contact with during a week jumps from a few to hundreds. That is going to mean a lot more work for health departments trying to track this.”

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Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director, said below-capacity testing across Wisconsin must be addressed before it is safe to begin lifting stay-at-home measures. The biggest challenge to increased testing in the Chippewa Valley, she said, is the lack of reagents, the ingredients necessary to conduct COVID-19 tests.    

Increasing testing will happen, but not immediately, she said. 

“Tomorrow there won’t be double the testing,” Giese said. “Getting not only the people to do the testing but supplies here locally, and the protocol changed, will take some time.”
The state is partnering with multiple companies and healthcare systems to quickly increase testing. Partners include Exact Sciences, which will expand testing by 20,000 weekly, and Marshfield Clinic Health System, expected to add another 10,000 tests each week.