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Dems ask why health officials withheld info about outbreak

Assembly Democrats are asking why state health officials delayed informing the public that a potentially deadly blood infection was spreading in Wisconsin.

The Department of Health Services began investigating a rash of illnesses from Elizabethkingia in December. The agency told hospitals to be on the lookout for infections in January but didn’t announce the problem to the public until March.

Elizabethkingia is a commonplace bacteria that's usually harmless. But the Wisconsin outbreak has resulted in a record number of illnesses due to the pathogen. At least 19 people have died.

Assembly Democratic leaders sent Gov. Scott Walker a letter asking for an explanation and how DHS will avoid “these systemic deficiencies.”

DHS officials said this month that they didn’t want to alarm the public because they hadn’t determined the source, which limited advice on how to avoid infections. DHS spokeswoman Julie Lund re-emphasized that point in an email to The Associated Press, saying that early on the agency couldn’t offer any information about the outbreak that would help with prevention.

“We carefully considered the impact of sharing what limited information we had,” Lund wrote. “We alerted the public once we had a general understanding of who is most likely to be affected by this outbreak, the region where the outbreak is located, and how it can be successfully treated. This allowed us to be transparent, while limiting the risk of unwarranted, widespread fears.”

She also stressed that there have been no infections involving children. Most of the people infected were over age 65 and all of them have serious, underlying health conditions.

Walker spokesman Jack Jablonski said in his own email to The Associated Press that the governor approved nine additional DHS positions to help investigate the outbreak earlier this month. He said DHS officials would respond to the lawmakers and clarify their facts.

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