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The number of COVID-19 deaths reached 154 as of Monday. Five of those people resided in Racine County, according to state and local officials.

Hospitals statewide tested 40,197 people or .7 percent of the 5.822 million people living in Wisconsin. Of those people tested, 36,769 tested negative, and 3,428 tested positive. Racine County officials reported 132 cases.

Gov. Tony Evers said that while Wisconsin is starting to see a flattening of the curve, it’s not enough to lift the ban on nonessential travel that currently runs through April 24, and he could not predict when that decision would be made.

“We’re starting to see Wisconsin flattening the curve, which means that Safer At Home is working,” Evers said during a press briefing.

Safer At Home order to remain in place, for now

Somewhere between 20 and 60 percent of adults could contract the virus, and about a fifth of the people who get COVID-19 could need to be hospitalized, according to officials at the Harvard Global Health Institute.

As a result, health officials have voiced concerns that the spread of the virus could mean more significant numbers of people will need medical care. If that happens, hospitals will not be able to deal with a higher volume of patient care. The term flattening the curve refers to fewer people contracting the virus and having less of an impact on the state’s healthcare system.

“We’re talking about saving lives,” he said. “We’re talking about your neighbors and co-workers, friends and family. We might even be talking about you. These are the lives we will save if we continue to flatten the curve. Once the danger of COVID-19 has passed, that will change.”

But the stay at home order can’t be lifted until there’s an infrastructure in place to help slow down the spread of the disease, he added.

Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state, added that there isn’t enough data to determine how much the virus has spread.

“One hundred cases are much better than 1,000 cases that are being seen in other states. But it’s probably not low enough for us to feel confident that there’s not a fair amount of community spread in multiple areas of the state,” he said.

Westergaard emphasized that they don’t have enough data to understand how much the virus has or has not spread. In countries that have had similar testing protocols, they detected about 10 to 20 percent of the cases. And until state officials can scale up and use other surveillance tools, they will not know what the proportion is and how big the tip of the iceberg is, he said.

“What it tells us is, we have a number of acutely ill patients that have COVID-19 that is — at this moment — not straining our hospital capacity,” he said. “But it also, unfortunately, tells us that there is a sustained transmission in the community. That means there’s a large number of people potentially that are infectious.”

To lift the Safer at Home order, Evers said state and local health departments need to operate differently. Health officials will need to zero in on identifying and containing those individuals who have the virus quickly.

“It’s good news and bad news — clearly we’re not at the surge that is straining our healthcare system, but we’re also not at such a small level that we’re safe from having an expanded epidemic that we’ve seen in many countries,” he said.

Response infrastructure grows

Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary designee Andrea Palm reminded the public that the curves on those graphics refer to people.

“If the people curve isn’t below the hospital line, those who need hospital care won’t get it,” she said.

The state now has 23 lab sites that can process 3,886 tests per day. It also plans to expand its contact tracing efforts to manage the pandemic actively. 

For those who have tested positive for COVID-19, the state now has two self-isolation sites: one at State Fair Park in Milwaukee and one at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison. But the state still needs staff to run it. State officials have called on retired healthcare workers to register at the Wisconsin Emergency Volunteer Assistance registry.

“Wisconsin needs you, and we are so grateful that you are volunteering,” Palm said.

State officials expect increased self-quarantine areas and beefed up contact tracing efforts. Additional testing is expected to occur in long-term care, prisons, and jails, and assisted living facilities where outbreaks may happen. Between added contact tracing and testing, they hope to stop the spread of the disease.

“We’re going to press on a number of different channels to build the number of tests more in line with the capacity we have as we continue to ramp capacity in the state of Wisconsin,” Palm said.

COVID-19 testing to increase

Despite an expansion at the state level for testing capacity, shortages of testing supplies and access to testing are “still a reality,” health officials said.

There is a bit of a bottle-neck in specimen collection and transport of tests at some hospital sites, but not at the laboratory sites, Westergaard said.

Who gets tested for COVID-19 is based on the clinical judgment of the clinician. But weeks ago, state officials emphasized that providers should test hospitalized patients “for whom a timely diagnosis of COVID-19 is critical to inform management decisions” and healthcare workers exhibiting symptoms.

Over the past few weeks, however, testing has been expanded.

Still, under Wisconsin DHS and CDC guidelines, people who have been exposed to COVID-19 and are not exhibiting symptoms are not being recommended for testing. Instead, they are told to self-quarantine and monitor their symptoms.

“The message we’d like to give is where we go from here depends on how we approach the coming weeks,” Westergaard said. “We’re not out of the woods for having another surge when things change as far as our physical distancing.”

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.