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Wisconsin prepares field hospitals as virus cases increase

MADISON — Wisconsin is preparing to open field hospitals and voluntary isolation centers in anticipation of a surge in COVID-19 patients, with cases expected to peak in another week or more, Gov. Tony Evers and state health leaders said Monday, March 30.

“We are headed into the worst of this, folks,” Evers said on a conference call. “I’m sure many of us would like to wake up from this nightmare tomorrow morning and say it never happened. But the responsible thing is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

There had been more than 1,200 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections in the state as of Monday, with 20 deaths, based on state and local health department numbers. The number of cases rose by about 10% from Sunday and has been steadily increasing, even after Evers last week issued a stay-at-home order.

Andrea Palm, secretary of the state Department of Health Services, said the effects that the stay-at-home order has had on the spread of the disease won’t be seen until next week at the earliest.

“We really do believe it’s another 10-plus days before were going to see evidence of a flattening off of the new daily cases,” she said.

But amid the concern there was hope.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer for communicable diseases, said the state has been seeing a slower increase in cases and that he believes lives have already been saved thanks to the stay-at-home order. The next two weeks will be critical, he said.

“It could be a lot worse,” he said. “What we’re doing is working.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are among those particularly susceptible to more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Nearly 200,000 Wisconsin workers who lost their jobs have filed for unemployment benefits since March 15. In a sign of how quickly and severely the outbreak has affected workers, Evers said that on Thursday, the Department of Workforce Development received 400,000 calls during a four-hour period, including more than 160 calls per second at one point.

Evers was working with lawmakers on an aid package to help jobless workers, state businesses, the health care industry and others most directly affected by the outbreak.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a statement that lawmakers and Evers were “continuing to make progress” on a bill for the Legislature to take up. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he expected an analysis soon of the $2.3 billion in federal aid coming to the state, something Republicans have said they wanted to understand before taking up a state bill.

Both Vos and Fitzgerald said the Legislature was looking at ways to safely meet, using technology to connect lawmakers remotely, in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, election officials moved ahead with preparations for next week’s April 7 presidential primary.

Monday was the deadline for voters to register to vote online or by mail to cast an absentee ballot. As of Monday morning, more than 848,000 absentee ballots had been sent to voters and nearly 252,000 had been returned, crushing previous record highs for a spring election.

In addition to the presidential primary, the election will feature a state Supreme Court race and a host of local races for mayor, school board and other offices.

Much of the focus in the coming days will be on federal court, where three lawsuits pertaining to the election were consolidated into one over the weekend. The state and national Democratic parties are seeking to expand absentee voting; groups that work to mobilize voters want to delay the election; and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and others want to allow people to be able to vote absentee without a witness.

The Wisconsin Republican Party asked the state Supreme Court to declare that Evers’ stay-at-home order has no bearing on the election. The action was in response to election clerks in the two most Democratic counties, Milwaukee and Dane, advising absentee voters to get around the requirement to upload a photo ID by declaring themselves as indefinitely confined.

Evers on Friday called on the Legislature to send absentee ballots to all voters, something Republican leaders rejected.

Evers and Republican lawmakers have been united in proceeding with the election on April 7, despite concerns from local election officials about a drop-off in poll workers, many of whom are in the high-risk category for catching COVID-19.

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