MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin will open scores of additional COVID-19 testing sites to help deal with the state’s surge in coronavirus cases, officials said Thursday.
Gov. Tony Evers announced that the state Department of Health Services will open 71 more community testing sites and operate them through Dec. 10 using federal coronavirus relief dollars. Wisconsin National Guard troops will staff the sites and administer the tests.
Testing will be free and open to the public. Together, the sites will be able to test up to 48,000 people per week, Evers’ office said.
State health officials and the Guard already were operating community sites in Dane, Milwaukee and Winnebago counties.
So many people have been getting tested in Wisconsin that it has overwhelmed contact tracing efforts, health officials said recently. Asked during a news conference whether the influx of tests from the additional sites will only make contact tracing more difficult, DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said that people who test positive will be asked to notify contacts themselves.
Wisconsin has been grappling with a surge of COVID-19 cases since September. The health department reported another 4,870 confirmed cases and 51 deaths on Thursday, bringing the state’s totals since the pandemic began to 214,996 cases and 1,948 deaths.
The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported a record 1,453 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday, which was an increase of 14 patients from Wednesday. Of those, 330 were in intensive care, which was nine fewer than on Wednesday.
Van Dijk said one in five hospitals reported critical staffing shortages on Wednesday. Asked what that meant, she said she didn’t have a specific definition but that it usually means caregivers are working longer shifts, coming in on days off and taking on heavier patient caseloads.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report concluding that a single student attending an overnight high school retreat in Wisconsin in July sparked an outbreak involving 118 of the retreat’s 152 attendees, including students and counselors from 21 states and U.S. territories and two foreign countries. The report said students and counselors were not required to wear masks or socially distance.
The report did not identify the retreat, but state health officials said it took place in southeastern Wisconsin, WTMJ-TV reported.
Also on Thursday, the state Department of Justice asked the state Supreme Court to decide whether Evers’ order implementing statewide restrictions on the size of indoor public gatherings is legal.
The powerful Tavern League of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit earlier this month challenging the order, saying it would drive bars and restaurants out of business. A Sawyer County judge blocked the restrictions on Oct. 14 but a Barron County judge reinstated them five days later, prompting an appeal from an Amery bar and Pro-Life Wisconsin, which argued the restrictions illegally limit the group’s fundraisers.
The 3rd District Court of Appeals blocked the order on Oct. 23 while it weighs the merits of the case. DOJ attorneys argued in a petition to the Supreme Court that the justices should take the case directly without waiting for an appellate ruling because the dispute looks headed to them anyway and every day that goes by without a ruling state health officials lack a tool that could slow the disease.
The conservative-leaning Supreme Court on Wednesday decided to hear a challenge to Evers’ mask mandate without waiting for it to move through any lower courts. The court in May struck down Evers’ stay-at-home order.