As the number of total positive cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin rose to more than 700 Thursday, Wisconsin health officials reminded residents the number will only grow while residents adjust to a new normal where nonessential travel and group gatherings are prohibited.
Officials with the Department of Health Services took to Facebook Thursday to host a live video conference with the public to answer questions ranging from testing and health concerns to Gov. Tony Evers’ order shutting down nonessential businesses until April 24.
DHS Secretary Andrea Palm reminded residents that the month-long order was deemed necessary to mitigate the respiratory disease’s spread. As of Thursday afternoon, DHS reported 707 people had tested positive in the state, including 114 in Dane County, and more than 11,500 have tested negative.
Later Thursday, Milwaukee County reported two more deaths from COVID-19, bringing Wisconsin’s death toll from the disease to 10, according to the Associated Press.
Officially, Wisconsin’s death toll from COVID-19 was listed at eight on Thursday, including one death in Dane County.
“Now is a critical moment … over the next month we will be able to assess how well we are doing at reducing the spread of this virus and breaking the chain of transmission,” Palm said. “I really do want to encourage you to take this order very seriously to protect yourselves and others.”
Of the public’s questions Thursday, many pertained to Evers’ order to shut down nonessential businesses for a month, which provides exemptions to a wide range of employers, from farms and factories to grocery stores and retailers that supply those working from home.
Public input on the order has been mixed, with some arguing the mandate goes too far, while others say it doesn’t go far enough.
“If we don’t do ‘safer at home,’ if we don’t aggressively intervene now to stop the spread of this disease, our health care system would not be able to treat all of those who have severe illness, and would require hospitalization,” Palm said. “We really believe strongly that this was the moment, that we are taking the right actions.”
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a medical officer for the state health department, said there are now 40 different labs across the state sending data on testing back to DHS.
“The capacity is getting bigger, more hospitals are able to do that right on site and that’s only going to get better,” Westergaard said.
Westergaard noted that, of those who have tested positive, between 20-25% have been hospitalized in the first few days after being diagnosed. Of those, about 10% require intensive care unit treatment.
Health officials also reminded residents the order does not force them indoors, but they are reminded to wash their hands, cover coughs and sneezes and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet between themselves and other people if they are out in the community.
In an effort to assist those who are unable to work during the outbreak, Wisconsin Insurance Commissioner Mark Afable on Thursday called on health insurers to give small employers the option to keep furloughed employees, or those working less than 30 hours a week, on employer-sponsored health insurance.
Health insurance contracts traditionally only insure employees who are considered active, or those working more than 30 hours a week.
“We know that small businesses are doing their best to retain employees even if it means reducing hours or furloughing them,” Afable said in a statement. “But these changes shouldn’t mean an employee loses access to their health insurance.”
Also on Thursday, Evers announced the launch of a personal protective equipment program, which aims to increase the availability of items such as gowns, gloves and masks for health care workers and first responders.
Wisconsin, like many other states, has a shortage of such equipment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Palm said in a statement.
“As we face a global shortage of PPE, and are competing with other states to acquire limited resources, I am calling on companies, schools, and other organizations that may have unused protective equipment sitting in their facilities to make those materials available to those who need it most,” Evers said in a statement.
The donation or sale of large quantities of the equipment to the state can be made at covid19supplies.wi.gov/Donations.
The state Emergency Operations Center will distribute the equipment to communities where they are most needed.
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