State health officials in Wisconsin said Tuesday that 19 people who have either voted in-person or worked at a polling site on election day have so far tested positive for COVID-19 after April 9, two days after the spring election, underscoring the risks of forging ahead with an in-person voting during the height of the widespread and deadly public health crisis.
But a department spokesperson told ABC News that several of those people “reported other possible exposures as well.” Officials are hesitant to link the new cases of the coronavirus directly to the election.
“Since we only have data on positive cases (without a comparison group of people who were not tested or tested negative), there is no way to know with certainty if any exposures at the polls that are reported are in fact attributable to COVID-19 illness,” the spokesperson said.
ABC’s Ryan Burrow reports for ABC News Radio:
Public health officials are continuing to interview people as part of their investigation process to determine if people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have participated in any election-related activities.
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“As of today, we have identified seven individuals that contracted — at least it appears — COVID-19 through election-related activities, whether they had showed up to vote at one of the polling sites in the city of Milwaukee or they worked at one of the polling sites,” Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, the city health commissioner, said Monday during a briefing today with city leaders on the virus.
Six of the seven cases involve voters, while one is a Milwaukee poll worker who tested positive for the virus, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Kowalik noted that city officials only have partial data at this point, and are looking to have a more complete picture by Friday of the impact of in-person voting on the spread of coronavirus.
“As of now, we only have 30% of the data as far as any new COVID-19 cases that were associated with the date of the 7th of April, which is when the election was held,” she said. “There needs to be a little bit more analysis so we can connect the dots, that's why case investigation and contact tracing is so important.”
City officials are currently seeking to broadly notify any voters who were potentially exposed to those now infected with the disease.
“There were people that were in line for a very long time to get their vote in, so if you figure out around a range of time when someone was there or in the polling sites or in the line, connect to someone who was an actual case, that's when we would do notifications,” she said.
In the city of Milwaukee, where the number of polling stations shrank to only five from its usual 180 in the city with a significant African American population, roughly 18,803 voters cast their ballots in-person on election day, meaning an average of about 3,700 voters were at each site.
The city and county have also become the state's epicenter of the crisis, with the most cases and deaths being reported out of the county. As of today, there are 2,150 confirmed cases in Milwaukee County, and 125 deaths.
In Dane County, the state's second largest which is home to Madison, health officials told ABC News they have not seen any confirmed cases likely associated with the election at this time.
Officials attribute that current finding to the high number of polling places, high absentee ballot usage, and availability of PPE for poll workers. On April 7, Madison had 66 polling sites in the predominantly white city, compared to 92 normally, far more than Milwaukee, but turnout in this year's election still fell short of 2016's historic ceiling.
Tuesday marks 14 days since in-person voting took place in Wisconsin's spring election, the time frame health experts give for symptoms to appear. The contest ultimately occurred after a chaotic series of emergency orders and legal challenges and against the backdrop of a country waging war with a surging global pandemic, with thousands of voters casting their ballots wearing masks and gloves and standing in long lines.
The state’s top Democrat, Gov. Tony Evers, and state Republican lawmakers spent the days leading up to the election at sharp odds after the governor reversed his stance on postponing the election.
Tensions escalated between the two parties on the eve of the election after Evers issued an executive order delaying in-person voting until early June. The abrupt move was a reversal for the governor and was swiftly challenged by top state Republican lawmakers, who filed a motion with the state Supreme Court. Within hours, the conservative-leaning bench blocked Evers’ order in a 4-2 decision.
Shortly after the election, the Wisconsin state health department announced it will trace new cases of the coronavirus to determine if there is any connection between those emerging cases and Tuesday's election through the Wisconsin Electronic Disease Surveillance System.
The newest numbers from the state come just one day after Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm told reporters during a state COVID-19 briefing that Wisconsin health officials have not yet seen “information in the data” to suggest that in-person voting in its spring election, which was nearly two weeks ago, has contributed to a significant uptick in the number of confirmed cases of the virus in the state.
Palm said given the “progression” of the virus, from infection to symptoms to getting tested to receiving a positive result, she is “not surprised” that the evidence hasn't appeared just yet.
“Remember the sort of lag time as it relates to the virus showing up. We have not yet seen indications of an impact from the election. We will continue to monitor that as well as other types of signals that suggest an outbreak,” she said.
The state health department did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment about the seven new cases in Milwaukee.