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DHS limits COVID-19 testing to ‘highest priority patients, health care workers’ amid shortage

Data pix.

MILWAUKEE— Testing for the coronavirus is being limited to the highest priority patients and health care workers due to a national shortage of COVID-19 laboratory testing materials, officials with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced Tuesday, March 17. The total number of positive cases in Milwaukee County increased to 50 Wednesday, officials announced in an afternoon news conference -- 19 of those in Milwaukee.

"I look at this as if it's a tidal wave, and we're bracing for it," said Jeanette Kowalik, Milwaukee health commissioner.

Dr. Ben Weston

Dr. Ben Weston

"We're seeing a significant increase in the number of cases on a day to day basis," said Dr. Ben Weston with the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Officials with the Milwaukee Health Department said in a news release Wednesday the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene and the Milwaukee Health Department Laboratory "significantly increased their capacity for COVID-19 testing, with the number of samples being received exceeding daily capacity."

MHD officials added both laboratories would be testing high-priority samples from hospitalized patients and health care workers seven days a week for the foreseeable future.

Test requests that do not meet the criteria were being sent to other labs in the state and country for testing.

"The highest level tier, the most critical would be patients in an ICU," said Dr. Weston. "Then, goes to hospitalized patients. Then, it keeps going down."

With the increased number of COVID-19 cases reported nationally and identified community spread in Wisconsin, health care providers were being urged to prioritize testing for hospitalized patients for whom the timely diagnosis of COVID-19 is critical, noting that testing should be prioritized based on clinical criteria.

Coronavirus in Milwaukee County

Jeanette Kowalik

Jeanette Kowalik

“In an effort to maintain capacity and make better use of limited supplies, we have to make sure that individuals who are critically ill, hospitalized, or receiving ICU care, along with severe clinical symptoms for COVID-19 are processed first,” said Kowalik in the release.  “Prioritizing testing also assures that the City of Milwaukee Health Department can manage the caseload and follow-up of the most critical patients as efficiently and effectively as possible.” 

MHD officials said in the release, "There is no role for testing asymptomatic patients," with testing not recommended for people with mild, upper respiratory symptoms, or those with mild illnesses for which they would not normally seek medical care.

Coronavirus testing

Those individuals were instead asked to self-isolate for 14 days at home until their symptoms improve.

"Stay home, and stay in your own space as much as possible," said Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.

CLICK HERE to access the DHS memo for prioritization of COVID-19 testing.

CLICK HERE for information for health care providers on testing, guidance, and an updated, required triage form.

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