FILE PHOTO (Scott Anderson, Patch Staff)

To prevent the COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus) from spreading, Governor Tony Evers ordered Wisconsin residents to heed even tighter restrictions on gatherings. He also ordered all bars and restaurants to close down, except for dine-in or carryout meals.

The order went into effect at 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 17.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) reported 72 cases of the COVID-19 virus, most of which are located in Milwaukee and Dane counties. Racine county has one case.

One person has recovered from the illness. But state and federal officials are concerned that the pandemic will spread rapidly. Testing has increased significantly. Wisconsin’s two testing labs have a capacity of processing 550 tests per day.

But as of Tuesday, those labs had received a total of 1,800 specimens.

“Our top priority at this time is to keep Wisconsinites safe and healthy by reducing the spread of COVID-19, especially for those who are considered high-risk. With limited tests available nationwide and continued community spread, we have to take every precaution to protect ourselves, our families, and our neighbors,” said Evers. “I know what this means for our small business owners and the struggles they and their workers will face in the coming weeks, but we are committed to working with our federal partners, state officials, and stakeholders to ensure we are doing everything we can to assist during these uncertain times”.

Orders tighten up on businesses, gatherings

The DHS reported that a number of the cases identified in Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Dane counties, were among people who had not traveled outside of the U.S.

“We have evidence of community spread in Milwaukee, Dane, and Kenosha counties. This means that there are people who have tested positive, and it is unknown what their exposures have been. They have had no exposures to a known case and have not traveled to a location where there is community transmission,” said DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm.

To isolate the virus, the CDC and Evers issued the order restricting mass gatherings.

A mass gathering is defined as any planned or spontaneous, public or private events or convenings where 10 people or more will be in a single room or single confined or enclosed space. People in gatherings of 10 people or less will need to keep six feet apart and follow all public health recommendations issued by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and Center for Disease Control.

Read the order.

All public and private schools, and institutions of higher education closed at 5 p.m. for instructional and extracurricular activities. This excludes times where those facilities are being used for medication pickup, childcare services, providing meals and when operating as polling places.

All bars and restaurants are ordered to be closed, except for those providing take-out or delivery service. Restaurants will also need to preserve social distancing of six-feet or more between customers during pick-up.

Retail food establishments — grocery stores, convenience stores, farmer’s markets — will need to close all seating intended for consuming food, cease self-service operations, and prohibit customers from self-dispensing all unpackaged food.

A number of area restaurants posted on Facebook that they would remain open for meal carry-out and delivery:

COVID-19 preparations in healthcare sector begin

CDC officials have raised several concerns around the spread of the virus, including larger numbers of people needing medical care and public health and healthcare systems becoming overloaded.

One of the ways to combat that is for people to use telehealth visits. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services expanded coverage for telehealth visits Tuesday.

“The Trump Administration is taking swift and bold action to give patients greater access to care through telehealth during the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Administrator Seema Verma. “These changes allow seniors to communicate with their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility so that they can limit the risk of exposure and the spread of this virus. Clinicians on the frontlines will now have greater flexibility to safely treat our beneficiaries.”

Richard A. Bright, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) said Americans need to have access to a rapid diagnostic test.

“The sooner clinicians, patients, and public health officials know whether someone is infected with the novel coronavirus, the sooner they can take action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Bright said. “Rapid diagnostic tests are critical in this public health response. We are working with the private sector at an urgent pace to make these tests available on as many diagnostic platforms as we can in the coming weeks.”

Testing capacity and testing ingredients for COVID-19 limited here

As hospitals and clinics ramp up in Wisconsin, state officials noted capacity issues with lab testing and a shortage in the supply of ingredients for the tests.

Healthcare officials were notified Tuesday that testing should be done in the clinic setting or outpatient setting, then sent out for testing to two testing sites: the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene and the Milwaukee Health Department Laboratory. However, a memo from Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer, and state epidemiologist for communicable diseases noted capacity issues.

The memo noted that while both labs have “significantly increased their capacity” the number of specimens received this week “far exceeded their daily capacity” as the testing site received 1,800 samples since Monday.

The capacity of processing tests at both labs: 550.

“With the increased number of cases of COVID-19 reported nationally and the growing likelihood of widespread community transmission in all areas of the country, the number of people requiring testing for COVID-19 is increasing significantly,” Westergaard said. “Priority should, therefore, be given to the testing of specimens from patients for whom a timely diagnosis is most urgent.”

Further, Westergaard said that health officials should use their clinical judgment on how to prioritize the testing.

“But at this time, providers are urged to prioritize testing for hospitalized patients for whom a timely diagnosis of COVID-19 is critical to inform management decisions,” and that they would only test for tier one and tier two specimens, Those tiers include people who meet a certain level of acuity.

Protective gear for healthcare workers on the way, but limited in number

Officials with the Wisconsin DHS notified healthcare officials Tuesday that the national stockpile of personal protective equipment is “extremely limited,” but it will be distributed to Wisconsin.

The Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response told the DHS that they will be given a 48-hour notice of when those supplies will arrive. However, no notice has been received, according to a memo that went out to health officials on Tuesday. 

Long-term care facilities were told to optimize their current inventory, per the direction of CDC guidelines.

The supplies include N95 respirators, surgical masks, face shields, gowns, coveralls and gloves for healthcare workers.

DHS officials also said there is a shortage of ingredients needed to run the tests, an issue many states are dealing with across the U.S. With that said, officials are partnering with the private sector and public universities to get the ingredients.

“We are working with our partners to ensure that we can continue to run testing,” said the  DHS’s Palm.

COVID-19 coverage

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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.