MADISON -- If you live in any of the states touching Wisconsin, you are only a few clicks away from knowing how many people have been tested for COVID-19 at state facilities.
Getting answers in Wisconsin is much more difficult.
The Evers administration says a push to expand access to novel coronavirus testing makes it difficult to provide the numbers that could give the public health crisis additional context.
As of 3:45 p.m. on March 12, 2020, Minnesota's health website said it had tested more than 36 people for COVID-19. Iowa was at 105, with 24 cases pending. Illinois had investigated at least 367 cases, with 76 pending; Michigan's breakdown was even more detailed, listing 520 people as "referred to assessment and/or monitoring to date."
Knowing how many people have been tested gives context; are we seeing a low amount of positive numbers because not many people are sick, or because not many test results are in?
Wisconsin's Department of Health Services is releasing numbers about positive and negative tests but is not telling the public how many tests are pending. That means right now, there's no way to quantify how many total samples have been tested.
"The number of pending cases becomes less relevant because it is not sort of immediately necessary for the public health response," DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm said during a press conference on Thursday.
"The tests are more dispersed now," Palm added when pressed further. "So what's being reported are positive results and negative results. So we do not have full visibility of all the tests that are taking place."
An Evers administration spokesperson said making testing more accessible has made it difficult to quantify how many tests have been done.
Instead of waiting for state approval, Wisconsin doctors can test at their discretion. The Evers administration says private labs like Quest, LabCorp, ARUP, and the University of Washington are also running COVID-19 tests.
At the press conference, Palm said Wisconsin was not at capacity for testing, but she expected that to change. DHS says the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene has been testing since March 2, with a capacity of 100 tests per day.
The Milwaukee Health Department says it can handle between 25 and 30 tests per day. As of March 12, the lab had run between 25 and 30 tests total.
FOX6 asked for a complete list of private labs involved in testing. DHS communications specialist Elizabeth Goodsitt said in an email that she could not provide one because the situation was "evolving quickly."
Even if state leaders cannot quantify how many tests private labs have run, they do have access to the number of tests run at the state lab. For example, Indiana's Department of Health website specifies that its "total tests" number only reflects COVID-19 tests performed by the state and the CDC.
FOX6 asked for numbers reflecting how many tests the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene has conducted. Goodsitt declined to provide a number, instead pointing to the state website that lists positive and negative tests but does not show how many tests are pending.
"The number of tests is not a good indicator because one patient may have multiple specimens tested," Goodsitt wrote. "So there won't be a 1-to-1 correlation."
Additionally, while states like New York and Maryland have given the public additional context by releasing ages of the unnamed patients who tested positive for COVID-19, Wisconsin has chosen to withhold that information, citing patient privacy.
"I think we can certainly consider [releasing age information]," Palm said. "I think we have been leaning on the side of protecting the privacy of these individuals and making sure the public knows the things that are necessary to protect the public health."