Coronavirus: 40 Milwaukee County Cases, Gatherings Limited To Less Than 10 People

For more up-to-date information, read WUWM's March 18 post.

Updated Wednesday at 7:29 a.m. CT

On Tuesday, state health officials reported 72 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, with 24 of those in Milwaukee County. Later in the day, Milwaukee County officials reported a higher number, saying there are now 40 cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus in the county.

>>The Latest WUWM & NPR Coronavirus Coverage

In a news release issued Tuesday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers declared that "community spread" is taking place in the state. That means that people are testing positive without having traveled to a location where the coronavirus is prevalent, and without knowingly having been exposed to someone who's tested positive for COVID-19.

"Today, we have cases in Milwaukee, Dane and Kenosha Counties indicating community spread is happening in Wisconsin," Evers said at a media briefing.

The COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin by county:

Milwaukee County: The state is reporting 24 cases, Milwaukee County is reporting 40 cases.
Dane County: 19
Fond du Lac County: 11
Kenosha County: 4
Outagamie County: 1
Pierce County: 1
Racine County: 1
Sheboygan County: 3
Waukesha County: 4
Winnebago County: 3
Wood County: 1

To help slow the spread of the virus, Evers directed state Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary-designee Andrea Palm to issue an order prohibiting gatherings of 10 people or more. The order includes exemptions, including for transit, educational institutions, child care, hotels, law enforcement and hospitals.

Also effective Tuesday, bars are closed and restaurants only can offer take-out or delivery services. That expands limitations that took effect for much of Milwaukee County early Tuesday.

Kelly's Bleachers bar, 5218 W. Bluemound, Milwaukee, would normally have been busy on St. Patrick's Day. But it was closed Tuesday evening, as part of local and state efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Grocery stores, convenience stores, and farmer's markets can stay open — as long as they close seating intended for consuming food and halt the use of salad bars, beverage stations, and buffets. 

Evers also announced a tiered, coronavirus testing system. He said that's because the number of specimens being received for testing at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene (WSLH) far exceeds the lab’s daily capacity. Evers said that’s despite the fact that WSLH has significantly increased its capacity for COVID-19 testing.

At the press conference, Dr. Allen Bateman, of the State Hygiene Lab at UW-Madison, called the supply chain fragile. "Because so many other labs nationwide are bringing on and scaling up this testing. This is a nationwide issue and not just Wisconsin," he said.

To conserve supplies for testing, WSLH and DHS are now prioritizing two tiers of cases for testing:

Tier One is for individuals who "are critically ill and receiving ICU level care with unexplained viral pneumonia or respiratory failure or are hospitalized (non-ICU) with fever or signs and symptoms of lower respiratory tract illness (cough, shortness of breath) and either known exposure to a laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 patient or travel to an area with sustained community transmission."

Tier Two is for people who "are hospitalized (non-ICU) with unexplained fever and signs/symptoms of lower respiratory tract illness or are health care workers with unexplained fever and signs/symptoms of a lower-respiratory illness, regardless of hospitalization."

"People who don't have any symptoms have no reason to get a COVID-19 test." - Dr. Ryan Westergaard

Test requests for people outside of those tiers will face longer wait times since those tests will be sent to other labs in the state and country.

Health Services Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ryan Westergaard said the message to medical clinics is not everyone needs a COVID-19 test.

"People who don't have any symptoms have no reason to get a COVID-19 test," he said. "And, people who have minimal symptoms like the common cold also likely don't need a test. So, why is that? For people who have mild illnesses, because there's not a specific treatment, it doesn't help us take care of people any better. In fact, most people get better without treatment."

On Tuesday, Waukesha County officials urged residents to avoid calling 911 or going to an emergency room unless they are experiencing a life or safety emergency. The county says the first step is to call your doctor or health care provider for medical information, or to call 211 to be connected with nonprofit or government services.

"We're going to continue to monitor this on a regular basis and open up schools as soon as possible — but it certainly won't be before April 6." - Gov. Tony Evers

Still, it appears the risk of getting the coronavirus will be around for a while — Gov. Evers announced that schools in Wisconsin will be closed indefinitely.

"In the first notice, or executive order around this issue, we had April 6 deadline," he shared. "We're removing that deadline because we don't know it's a realistic deadline. So, we're making it indefinite. We're going to continue to monitor this on a regular basis and open up schools as soon as possible — but it certainly won't be before April 6."

State health officials declined to say whether any of the COVID-19 patients in Wisconsin are children, saying they don't have that level of detail right now. However, Evers did address the issue of economic hardship for families whose jobs have been harmed by the coronavirus outbreak.

"To help our workers, we are asking the state Legislature to immediately take up legislation to repeal Wisconsin's one-week waiting period for unemployment compensation insurance," he said. "In addition, we will waive an order on work search requirements and modify the availability requirements for unemployment insurance benefits for workers impacted by COVID-19."

Evers said he'll talk with legislative leaders about passing measures to help workers and their families. One thing he did appear reluctant to change is the state's spring general election day on April 7, saying it's only a primary for the presidential candidates.

"We have lots of other non-partisan officials at the county level, at the state level, at the local level," Evers said. "We have to weigh all that. How long do we potentially leave offices not filled because we're into July or August?"

More than 500,000 Wisconsin residents have already requested absentee ballots, Evers said. But Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said Monday he’d rather push back the election date and have people be safe. 

“Moving the date won’t kill anybody, but keeping it might," Abele said.