Gov. Evers declares public health emergency over coronavirus, risk to residents remains 'low'

MADISON -- Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency, the state Capitol closed to formal tours and the state high school athletics association moved to drastically limit attendance at remaining winter tournaments Thursday, March 12 as officials scrambled to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus in Wisconsin.

Evers' declaration frees up resources and allows the Department of Health Services to buy, store and distribute medications regardless of health coverage. It also releases state funds to support local health departments with costs stemming from isolations and quarantines, authorizes the use of the Wisconsin National Guard and prohibits price gouging.

DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said during a news conference that the agency is recommending the cancellation of all events with more than 250 people. Evers said people should stop shaking hands to prevent the spread of the virus.

“'Wisconsin nice' is going to have to have a different look to it in the future,” he said.

For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the disease. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild cases recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe cases can take three to six weeks to recover.

Wisconsin had eight confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, as of Thursday afternoon. That was up from six cases on Wednesday. The two new patients both had contact with someone who was confirmed to be infected earlier this week, health officials said.

Evers and Palm said the state was bracing for the return of 37 residents who were on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where they may have been exposed to the virus. Evers said National Guard troops will drive the residents to their homes when they land in the state and they'll be placed in isolation. Guard spokesman Joe Trovoto said the residents were asymptomatic so far.

Brig. Gen. Joane Mathews, the Guard's second in command, said the troops will be unarmed but referred questions about whether the citizens would be placed in custody to DHS officials, who didn't immediately respond to an email. Evers told reporters that the evacuees would not be placed under house arrest, but he didn't elaborate.

Meanwhile, cancellations continued to mount.

Evers' Department of Administration closed the state Capitol to tour groups indefinitely, although the building remains open to the public, at least for now.

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association moved to limit attendance at winter tournaments because of the virus, most notably the girls' basketball tournament underway at Resch Center near Green Bay and the boys' tournament at the Kohl Center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus March 19-21. The policy limits attendance to 88 tickets per team, two supervisors and 22 team members.

President Donald Trump's campaign canceled an event in Wisconsin next week because of the coronavirus. The “Catholics for Trump” event was scheduled March 19 in Milwaukee.

Marquette University suspended face-to-face instruction as of March 16, the first day back from spring break. Classes will be taught exclusively online through at least April 10 and students will not be allowed to return to university housing before that date. The University of Wisconsin-Madison and a number of other UW System institutions have implemented similar suspensions.

Evers and Palm said K-12 public schools can remain open for now but should keep students in smaller groups.

The governor urged people to vote by absentee ballot as the state's April 7 president primary approaches. Palm also advised people to stock up on at least two weeks' worth of supplies to ensure they have what they need in case they become ill and have to quarantine themselves.

She also noted that she expects the state will soon reach its capacity for testing for the virus and may have to ask the federal government for help expanding the number of labs that can analyze samples.

CLICK HERE for more information from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.