MADISON, Wis. — Health leaders coordinating Wisconsin’s reaction to the new coronavirus assured lawmakers at a briefing Wednesday that the risk of infection remains low in the state, but discussions are underway about how to handle potential outbreaks at prisons, long term care facilities and other places where people congregate.
State health officials urged calm, while also acknowledging that much is not known about the virus that causes a disease called COVID-19. They noted that the guidance they give now may change as the virus spreads and more is learned. Only one person in Wisconsin has tested positive for COVID-19 and that person has recovered.
“Because it’s new there is so much we don’t know,” said Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm. “It is why we all feel a little bit of anxiety about this. That is natural when you’re dealing with a new disease.”
Gov. Tony Evers called the Wednesday briefing for lawmakers that was made public and broadcast live on the WisconsinEye public affairs network.
Lawmakers, staff members and others said they’re being bombarded with questions about what would happen if a teacher or student contracts the virus; what’s being done to help nursing homes; what impact this could have on Wisconsin’s tourism industry; testing procedures; and possible travel restrictions.
Rep. Michael Schraa, of Oshkosh, asked what was being done to prepare for an outbreak at a state prison, some of which have staffing shortages as high as 30%.
Palm, the state health secretary, said that was among concerns raised at a meeting of Evers’ Cabinet on Tuesday.
Palm said she has talked with Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr about what the plan would be. The state is applying guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how to handle an outbreak at any place where people congregate, Palm said.
More than 120 cases have been reported in the U.S. and nine people have died, all in and around Seattle. Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 90,000 people and caused more than 3,100 deaths, most of them in China.
Health officials said the best thing to do is follow basic safeguards to avoid spreading any virus: wash hands frequently; cover coughs and sneezes; don’t shake hands; routinely clean surfaces; avoid touching your eyes and face; and stay home when sick.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was one of eight lawmakers at the briefing and the only one of four legislative leaders to be there. Vos said afterward that he was “surprised” no constitutional officers or other legislative leaders attended.
“I changed my schedule to be here,” said Vos, a Republican.
Vos said he didn’t see any reason for the Legislature to return to deal with coronavirus. He said the state health department has enough resources now to handle it and if it needs more money it can make an emergency funding request with the Legislature’s budget committee.
If a public health emergency is declared, more money to support public health activities would be made available. The last time that happened was in 2009 in response to the H1N1 flu strain, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer for communicable diseases.
“It’s important for the public to remember there are many more people who are subject to the regular flu than there are for coronavirus,” Vos said. “So we want to be safe, but we also don’t want to have any kind of public hysteria where we overreact in a way that hurts people more than it helps them.”