Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

The expansion of COVID-19 testing that began last week strongly suggests that Wisconsin must go very, very slowly in easing shutdown restrictions.

Experts have said since the beginning of the pandemic that the numbers of cases being reported were just the tip of the iceberg. Many actual cases, they said, were hidden underneath, out of sight.

New evidence proves them right, and elected officials must take that evidence into consideration before lifting their shutdown restrictions.

Officials have long warned that before re-opening businesses and public events, state governments should see a “flattening curve” on the graph of new cases in their jurisdiction. In other words, new case numbers would have to remain stable — and at a number that the state’s health care infrastructure could handle.

Now the recognized benchmark for re-opening is 14 days of consecutively lower rates of new infections.

By either measure, Wisconsin’s graph has never been on such a trajectory. PolitiFact ruled that a claim to the contrary made by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald was “mostly wrong.”

Still, the false information was embraced by an impatient public itching to get sprung from homes that had started to feel more like prisons.

That was on April 21, when the two Republican leaders filed suit with the state’s Supreme Court, asking justices to halt a proposed month-long extension of Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order. The state's Republican-majority high court generally rules in the party's favor in such cases.

No sooner had the two Republican leaders filed their case than Wisconsin’s graph began looking more towering than flat. On April 22 and 23, the state recorded its largest two-day increase of cases ever. On April 25, the Department of Health Services reported 331 new cases — far more than the previous record of 225, which was set just days earlier.

The amped-up testing, as hoped, was beginning to provide a clearer picture of reality.

A large pocket of cases — 849 so far — emerged in Brown County, most of them involving employees at three meat-packing companies in Green Bay. That number continues to climb.

Another 40 cases were tied to the in-person elections forced upon the state by Vos and the Republican-majority Supreme Court, which is a story in itself.

Every other state that scheduled April elections postponed them out of concern for their constituents' safety. In a transparently cynical move, however, Wisconsin’s Republican leaders forced voters to either sit out the election or risk exposure to COVID-19 at the polls.

Many voters had been led to believe that the election would be postponed. Many had applied to vote absentee by mail weeks earlier, but they never received their ballots.

graph of infections in Wisconsin

From the Wisconsin Department of Health Services

As the graph shows, COVID-19 cases in the state are rising, not falling.

So, off they marched to the very few polls that were open, due to a lack of volunteers willing to staff them. In Milwaukee and Green Bay, voters stood for hours in long lines, trying to maintain the recommended social distance of six feet but often finding it impossible.

In Milwaukee, there were only five polls instead of the usual 180. In addition to being sure they cast a ballot, voters were sure they were in a very unhealthy crowd situation. They deserve a lot of credit for the risks they took to fulfill citizens' most fundamental duty.

Outrage was felt across the nation and the globe, as seen in stories in print, online and on broadcast media. Millions of people now see Wisconsin in a regrettable new light.

In a twist of fate, the potentially deadly Republican ploy was all for naught. They thought suppressing the vote in Milwaukee would work to their advantage, but they still lost the race they were worried about, a 10-year seat on the state’s high court.

Less than three weeks after the election, DHS announced that it had used “new tracing mechanisms” to help local health departments identify 40 residents who might have contracted the virus by voting or working at the polls. Officials are still in the process of reviewing some of those cases and counting new ones.

Most of the newly infected  hadn’t been anywhere else where they could have have been exposed, and several are still being investigated to determine if they had.

Regardless of where they were infected, the people who tested positive after the event could have passed the coronavirus on to someone else at the polls. The virus is all around us and it will happily hop to new hosts wherever crowds are gathered.

What we’re up against

Symptoms do not generally appear for several days, and it can take as long as 14 days. During that time, infected people can be both symptomless and contagious. It’s estimated that 25 percent to 50 percent of carriers are unaware of their condition.

That’s unlike viruses we’re accustomed to, such as colds and influenza. Medically speaking, we’re on Mars.

We still don’t know how many pockets of the novel coronavirus are yet to be discovered. In addition to the meatpacking plants and the April elections, we recently had 1,500 people gather outside the Capitol to protest the lockdown in the state. Most of them were not wearing masks and almost none kept the recommended social distance.

COVID-19 math works this way: On average, each infected person passes the virus on two others, who then pass it on to two others, and so on.

Right now, we have more than 6,000 known cases in the state. Those cases are either being treated or living in quarantine. Hopefully, the people they’ve been in contact with have been identified and told to remain in isolation for two weeks.

But how many more infections are we yet to find? Until we’ve tested enough people — and have their contacts in self-quarantine — we should stay safer at home. Not only for ourselves, but for everyone we come into contact with.

Evers has a plan to slowly re-open businesses according to the level of risk they present. The plan is fairly consistent with White House guidelines. If all works out as hoped, each new stage will eventually lead safely back to normalcy.

But that won’t be any time soon. The all-encompassing, instant return to life as usual that Madison demonstrators demanded is off the table. Yes, they have rights, but not the right to endanger the lives of others, as Vos and his associates recklessly did.

How many infections resulted from that rally? We might never know, but it is very likely that were some.

So, chill out.


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