Election’s Impact on County’s COVID-19 Cases Unclear
Final report shows 54 cases, but might be low or high, many questions remain.
A final Milwaukee County epidemiological report leaves more questions than answers on the spread of COVID-19 and the April 7th spring election.
Contact tracing of confirmed cases of COVID-19 found 54 cases in Milwaukee County, 44 of which were in the City of Milwaukee, where an individual who contracted the disease visited a polling site on election day.
But the report, authored by the Milwaukee County Epidemiological Intel Team, can’t conclude that’s where those individuals contracted the virus.
“Some of these cases may have been infected prior to voting, some may have been infected while voting, and others may have been infected during other activities not related to the election,” says the report.
The report split the cases into two groups, those with an onset of symptoms before April 9th and those with onset between the 9th and 21st. Individuals can be asymptomatic for up to 14 days. Both groups have 26 individuals. Two individuals were omitted because the state database had no recorded date of the onset of their symptoms.
Two of the 54 individuals were poll workers, both of whom started showing symptoms after April 9th.
It’s possible individuals in the two groups could have infected one another. Eleven individuals voted, but later reported they were already experiencing symptoms. Six of those individuals voted in-person, while five voted curbside.
A total of 15 people with a confirmed case voted curbside.
Six of the 54 individuals have required hospitalization. None of them have died as of May 5th.
Did the election lead to a growth in COVID-19 cases across the county? The positive test rate peaked in Milwaukee County in early April, falling to an April 22nd low and has climbed again since. But officials don’t know if that is a result of the election or other outbreaks. Testing capacity and guidance on who should be tested have also changed during that period.
“We have an inconsistent relationship between the election that took place on April 7th and the spread of COVID-19,” said North Shore Health Department Director Ann Christiansen during a press briefing Wednesday afternoon. She said the spread was slowed because of health practices put in place at the polling sites, but that other connections are unclear.
Greenfield Public Health Officer Darren Rausch said the report likely understates the total of people that voted that now have COVID-19. Half of the individuals testing positive for COVID-19 in the review period did not respond to a question about election participation, possibly due to not being asked. Others might never have been tested. “Due to limitations in testing and asymptomatic cases, it is likely that there are individuals with COVID-19 who participated in the election and are not reflected in the numbers presented here,” says the report.
The team could not conclude how many, if any, individuals contracted the disease at a polling place beyond a reasonable doubt. “The election and Easter/Passover holiday weekend took place during a transition period that makes it difficult to discern whether these events had an impact on the spread of COVID-19. In particular, the increase in testing capacity during this time and the overall decreasing trend in cases starting around the time of the election complicate interpretation,” says the report in its conclusion.
Similar to COVID-19’s spread across the county, the disease disproportionally infected people linked to the election who identify as African Americans. The report says 59.3 percent of the election cases (32) involve African Americans, while the group makes up only 26 percent of the county’s population. Of all the county cases, 41 percent involve African Americans.
There is one thing Mayor Tom Barrett is certain of. “Please don’t make us go through that fiasco again,” said the mayor during a Wednesday press briefing. He said it was unfortunate that personal protective equipment had to be used by poll workers that could have otherwise gone to healthcare workers or first responders.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that people are going to interpret this however they want to interpret this,” said Barrett.
A press release incorrectly states 56 cases were connected to the election.
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