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Coronavirus: how it’s affecting the region and state

IMPACT ON ELECTIONS?

In light of bans on large gatherings, will the April 7 Spring Election still take place in Wisconsin? Georgia was the first state to delay its upcoming election. Other states, including New York, began postponing theirs, as well. Sending nearly every member of a community to one or two polling places on a single day would be one of the most efficient ways to spread the disease. 

The Spring Election will determine who sits on local school and municipal boards, as well as playing a part in determining who runs for President on the Democratic ticket this fall. 

On March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. At a special meeting on March 12, the Wisconsin Elections Commission took two actions designed to deal with concerns about COVID-19 Coronavirus in advance of the April 7 Spring Election and Presidential Preference Primary and the May 12 Special Election in Congressional District 7. On the same day, Governor Evers issued an executive order “proclaiming that a public health emergency exists in the State of Wisconsin as a result of the COVID-19 Coronavirus.” One day later, President Donald Trump made a national emergency declaration. 

First, the Wisconsin Elections Commission directed municipal clerks to mail absentee ballots directly to residents in nursing homes and care facilities instead of dispatching teams of special voting deputies to those places where vulnerable populations live. Normally, teams of special voting deputies and political party observers conduct voting in common areas and potentially in residents’ rooms to assist with absentee voting.

“We understand the concern of protecting our most vulnerable voters is paramount,” said Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s chief elections official. “The Commission is taking this action in consultation with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and its pending directive to limit public visits to nursing homes and care facilities.”

Second, the Commission acted to give municipal clerks flexibility to relocate polling places currently slated to be in nursing homes and other facilities where public health is a concern. Under state law, municipalities must establish locations for polling places at least 30 days before an election, which has already passed for April 7. The Commission’s action will allow clerks to find alternate polling place locations as needed.  The Commission will also help clerks publicize new polling place locations so voters can find them.

Wolfe said the WEC staff had been working continuously over the week “to assess the COVID-19 situation, provide clerks with sound guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, and develop additional guidance for clerks and voters in advance of the coming elections.”

“We understand everyone has pressing and important concerns regarding COVID-19,” Wolfe said. “We share clerks’ mission and sense of urgency in ensuring each of Wisconsin’s voters has access to exercise their right to vote without jeopardizing their health or the health of others.”

The Commission held two special webinars for clerks on Monday to address COVID-19 issues and is providing continuous updates that will be posted in real time on this newspaper’s website. 

Commission Chair Dean Knudson said the WEC may hold additional special meetings in the coming weeks to address additional public health concerns as they may arise, including encouraging Wisconsin residents request absentee ballots by mail or to vote absentee in-person before the election.

In one small, rural town in Wisconsin, the clerk overseeing the election said she was drawing on past experiences as she prepared for the election. Vermont clerk Katie Zelle was previously the director for a residential summer program during the H1N1 pandemic, so she knew to plan ahead. 

“I was lucky in that I saw this coming and ordered extra absentee ballot envelopes several weeks ago,” said Zelle. 

“With an additional case of corona virus confirmed in Dane County on Tuesday of [last] week, the Town of Vermont is making plans to ensure that the upcoming election on April 7 will be unaffected and that residents are able to cast their ballots without concern that their health is at risk,” Zelle said. 

“We encourage you to vote absentee, particularly if you or anyone in your household is elderly, medically frail or has respiratory issues, such as asthma,” she continued. (You can request your ballot online at myvote.wi.gov.)

Your ballot can be mailed to you, or even emailed, if you prefer. The last day to request an absentee ballot is April 2, but municipalities began mailing ballots on Monday of this week.

“If you plan to vote in person, there are common sense precautions you can take to protect yourself and others when you come to vote,” Zelle said. “If you would like to bring your own black pen, you are welcome to use your own, rather than ours. If you still need to register to vote you can do so online or by mail until March 18, to save you time at the polls. Additionally, as always, wash your hands frequently and try to avoid touching your face. When possible, maintain a six-foot distance from others while waiting to vote.”

Per the Dane County Health Department, Vermont will be wiping down all commonly touched surfaces at least once per hour and following any additional suggestions they may have.

“If you are interested in being a poll worker, we could still use a list of people we could call in the event that one or more poll workers are ill,” said Zelle. “In the event that we have fewer poll workers on April 7 please plan to allow a little extra time to vote. We will do everything we can to make sure voting is as safe, easy and secure as it always is.”

 

HOW TO REQUEST AND ABSENTEE BALLOT

There are several ways registered voters can request absentee ballots. If they have internet access, the easiest way is to sign up at MyVote Wisconsin, myvote.wi.gov.

Just look for the “Vote Absentee” button near the top of the page. On a mobile phone, use the menu button in the upper right corner of the website. There is a three-step process that starts with putting in your name and date of birth, followed by requesting your ballot. If you don’t already have a photo ID on file with your clerk’s office, you can upload a copy. Mobile phone users can take a picture and upload it to MyVote. Absentee ballot requests submitted this way go directly to your clerk’s office, and you can track your ballot by returning to the website.

Voters can also request absentee ballots by mailing, emailing or faxing their municipal clerk’s office. You can find your clerk’s contact information on MyVote Wisconsin. These requests must be accompanied by a copy of your photo ID.   If you already have a photo ID on file from previous absentee requests under your current registration, you will not need to provide it again.

Voters who are indefinitely confined, meaning they may have difficulty getting to the polls for reason of age, illness, infirmity, or disability are not required to provide a photo ID.  Voters in care facilities can have a representative of the facility confirm the resident’s identity instead of providing a photo ID.  More information on photo ID and exemptions can be found at bringit.wi.gov

The deadline for registered voters to request an absentee ballot be mailed to you is the Thursday before the election, April 2. However, the WEC urges voters not to wait, due to possible delays in mail delivery.  If you get an absentee ballot mailed to you, you can still decide to vote at the polls on Election Day if you haven’t returned it.

Your absentee ballot must be received in your clerk’s office or at your polling place by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Again, the WEC urges voters to request and return ballots as soon as possible.

 

WHAT THE GOVERNOR SAID

In his statement on March 12, Governor Tony Evers said six people in Wisconsin had been infected. The governor signed an executive order that directs DHS to take all necessary and appropriate measures to prevent and respond to incidences of COVID-19. It allows the Department to purchase, store, or distribute appropriate medications, regardless of insurance or other health coverage, as needed to respond to the emergency. It also authorizes state funds to support local health departments with costs related to isolation and quarantine, as well as the use of the Wisconsin National Guard.

One day later, he reported the number had risen to 19. 

Evers then directed the Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary-designee Andrea Palm to issue an agency order mandating the statewide closure of all K-12 schools, public and private, as part of the state’s efforts to respond to and contain the spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. 

“The mandated closure will begin on Wednesday, March 18, in order to give school districts ample time to make plans for kids, families, educators, and staff. School districts, particularly those in counties with reported cases of COVID-19, may choose to close earlier than Wednesday,” said the governor’s office. “The anticipated reopening date is April 6, 2020; however, the reopening date is subject to change pending further information.”

“Closing our schools is not a decision I made lightly, but keeping our kids, our educators, our families, and our communities safe is a top priority as we continue our work to respond to and prevent further spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin,” said Evers.

Earlier that day, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 11 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 19 cases, including one individual who had already recovered.

“Kids and families across Wisconsin often depend on our schools to access food and care,” Evers continued. “We are going to continue working to do everything we can to ensure kids and families have the resources and support they need while schools are closed.”

 

WIAA CANCELS ALL REMAINING WINTER STATE TOURNAMENT SERIES EVENTS

On March 12, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association determined all remaining games of the State Girls Basketball Tournament, and the boys basketball sectional finals and the State Tournament will be canceled in response to the evolving concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

“The WIAA regrets the lost opportunity for teams and players that have worked to achieve their goals and the communities that have supported them throughout the year,” said a statement issued by the organization.

“I want the student-athletes and their coaches to know that your school leaders, the WIAA Executive Staff, our committees and the Board of Control have done everything imaginable to try to provide and preserve these opportunities for you,” Executive Director Dave Anderson said. “However, we want and need to be responsible in helping the global and state efforts to stem the tide and spread of this virus.”

Earlier on the same day, the WIAA was informed the Kohl Center would not be available for the State Boys Basketball Tournament scheduled for March 19-21. 

Tickets for the WIAA Girls and Boys State Basketball tournaments will be refunded in full. 

Evers’ executive order issued Friday, March 13 closed all public and private schools, and suspended all school spring sports activities extending from Wednesday, March 13, 2020, until Monday, April 6 at the earliest. 

In response, the WIAA has updated its athletic participation limitations to adhere to the executive order as stated on the WIAA’s Infectious Disease option.

Consistent with. Evers’ announcement Friday, all school training, practices, scrimmages and contests were suspended. 

“In addition, schools and coaches may not bring students together or be involved with students during this time period for any extracurricular or athletic purposes, which includes practices and other instructional/organizational purposes,” stated the WIAA. “Coaches may provide individual workouts virtually, but shall not encourage or organize their team assembling to practice.”

 

‘IT’S JUST A TOTALLY VULNERABLE POPULATION’

Dr. Sarah Fox is a family medicine physician and vice president of medical services for primary care at Upland Hills Health. She said the medical community is working to better understand the virus, its effects on health, and ways to treat it. In the meantime, the general public will play a vital role in slowing the spread of the pandemic. 

“We just launched, at Upland Hills, some … testing to confirm if it’s spreading in the community,” she explained Monday. Once the virus is documented, hospitals will “back down” from testing every patient and simply advice the majority of people with symptoms to stay home, try to stay isolated, and not visit clinics or emergency rooms where they are likely to infect the most vulnerable populations. 

Fever alone is not a sufficient reason to visit the hospital, she said, but sever shortness and difficulty breathing are. 

Fox said COVID-19 is often present in the community for several weeks before the first positive test results, meaning infected people unknowingly spread it as they go about their daily lives. 

“Our goal is to try to cut this off before it gets to the most vulnerable people,” she said. “Maybe it seems like [the response is] over the top, but we’re fortunate that this is reaching our communities a little later, and we are able to learn from what happened before, and quite honestly some of the mistakes that were made.”

Hyperbolic online rhetoric has claimed the virus is part of a biological war, while some people believe it doesn’t exist and others are consumed with panic. The truth is, COVID-19 is a new virus, and doctors don’t yet know enough about it to answer every question. 

“We have limited resources and delaying the most severe cases will give us time,” Fox explained. “Time to learn more about it. Time to learn what medicines might hurt, or what medicines might hurt.”

“The success of this is very much dependent on the public,” she added. “If we are able to look back on this and say it was all an overreaction, in many ways that’s the best case scenario; that means we were successful.”

While many Wisconsinites were able to work from home, that’s not true for most doctors and nurses. 

“We have to continue delivering babies,” Fox pointed out. 

In the future, people might develop some immunity to COVID-19. But even that immunity might be temporary, as with some viruses, rather than permanent, as with others (like chicken pox). 

In the meantime, local communities have, for the most part, banded together to help “flatten the curve” – a term for preventing too many cases from occurring at once - and prevent the disease from overwhelming hospitals and resources. That social distancing will have real economic effects, and societal ones, too. But it could save lives. 

“Right now we have no immunity,” Fox said. “It’s just a totally vulnerable population.”

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