Wisconsin Made COVID Isolation Centers Public But Some Counties Move Toward Secrecy
The Lowell Center is located several blocks away from the UW-Madison campus. From April 1 through July 23, the center provided a place for 10 people to isolate due to COVID-19. (Photo © Andy Manis)

County health officials say revealing locations will deter hotel owners from partnering with them, scare away regular guests. 

County health officers across Wisconsin are contracting with hotels and other sites to house people with COVID-19 or in contact with those having the contagious virus, but they’re not releasing those locations to the public the way state government did in the early weeks of the pandemic.   

Having places where people with or exposed to the virus can be isolated because they lack the means of doing so on their own plays a major role in helping contain the illness, Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the state’s chief medical officer with the Bureau of Communicable Diseases, said Thursday. 

“The ability to have a safe place to isolate and quarantine is tremendously important. It is probably an underutilized strategy in Wisconsin and elsewhere,” Westergaard said. “So the communities that have had those, our position would be to encourage their use and awareness.”

Health officers at the local level agree that such arrangements are necessary to prevent further spread of the contagious virus. They told UpNorthNews those sites, used for homeless people or others who lack secure housing, are needed to allow people to safely isolate from others. 

However, revealing those locations to the public would destroy the ability to secure agreements with hotels and other sites that already are extremely challenging to obtain, they said. That, in turn, would mean more people contagious with COVID-19 out in communities, and more cases of the illness. 

Those businesses housing COVID-19 patients are concerned about that fact being made public, Giese said, because of the perception that they will be deemed no longer safe places to stay. She said her department has housed numerous people in need of isolation at several sites.

“There is a lot of fear” about COVID-19, said Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director, “and these businesses know that all it takes is for a couple of bad messages to get out there and it could really have a bad effect on them.”

Not everyone agrees with keeping sites used to isolate COVID-19 patients secret. Some people are calling for health departments to reveal those quarantine locations, saying people deserve to know where cases of the virus are so they can avoid them. 

Wausau resident Thomas Jasper travels often for his job. He said he and others deserve to know where populations of people with COVID-19 are so they can avoid those sites and stay healthy. 

“I don’t think it’s fair to the public to keep that information secret,” he said.

Keeping the locations secret runs counter to the actions taken by the state when it opened two isolation facilities at the beginning of April. Both locations were made public. 

The Lowell isolation facility served 10 occupants before closing on May 28, and the The Super 8 isolation facility in Milwaukee closed after serving 89 occupants on June 7, said Elizabeth Goodsitt, spokeswoman with the state Department of Health Services. 

But other health officers, like Chippewa County Health Department Director Angela Weideman, said hotels already are reluctant to house people with or exposed to COVID-19 and in need of isolation because of the risk of negative publicity. 

If health officers were to release the locations of such sites, the owners of those businesses wouldn’t provide space for those in need, leaving county officials to scramble to find other places for them. 

“Thankfully there are a few hotels who are willing to work with health departments,” she said, “but if we told everyone which businesses we were working with, none of them would help us.”

Giese declined to disclose how many people in need of isolation have been at the Eau Claire locations and which and how many sites the county has contracted with. Those sites continue to be needed as the number of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin continues to climb, she said.

As of Thursday, 45,899 state residents have tested positive for the virus and 878 have died, according to state Department of Health Services statistics.  

Weideman also refused to reveal those sites but said two county residents have been housed since cases began in March. Neither had tested positive for the virus but had been exposed to someone who had, she said.

One site each in Milwaukee and Madison designated by the state to provide isolation for those in need were made public. But those sites have since closed, and health officers at the county level generally have not revealed locations they are using for that purpose.   

On Tuesday the Stevens Point Journal wrote a story about Portage County officials contracting with an unnamed business to house people with or exposed to COVID-19 who lack secure places to stay. The Journal requested a copy of the county’s agreement, but county officials denied the request, citing confidentiality reasons.

County Health and Human Services Director Ray Przybelski told the Journal the county has housed at least seven people who tested positive for COVID-19. Like Giese and Weideman, he said publicly identifying the location where those people have stayed could cause the business to cancel its contract, leaving the county without a place for them to go.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, has called for more public release of COVID-19 cases at Wisconsin businesses. Many attempts to block the release of such information would not stand up in court, he said. He was critical of Portage County officials for their refusal to reveal the site where people in need of isolation are staying. 

But Giese said rather than seeking public notice of businesses housing that population, “people should be thanking them. They are helping reduce the spread of this virus.”

Westergaard said he was not aware that secrecy related to sites housing people in need of isolation to slow the spread of COVID-19 was an issue of concern.

“I think the most important thing is for those resources to be available, accessible, and used by the people who need them,” he said.