Wisconsin officials are dramatically expanding the state’s network of community testing sites — from three to 74 — as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
Wisconsin logged 4,870 new COVID-19 cases and 51 additional deaths Thursday, marking nearly 215,000 cases and 1,948 deaths since the pandemic began, according to the state Department of Health Services.
“We are in a tough spot, Wisconsin,” DHS deputy secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said on a media call with reporters. “COVID-19 is in every corner of this state, which means we also need the resources to stop its spread in every corner of the state.”
The new free testing sites are located in 56 counties and seven tribal nations around the state. The new centers join free testing sites already operating in Dane, Milwaukee and Winnebago counties. A list of the sites can be found at the DHS website.
“Distance is one barrier that we can do something about, and one of the ways to address this issue is to offer testing in more places,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement.
The sites will not be open all week. Testing availability will range from one to three days per week to once a month, depending on the site.
The new sites, which are funded by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, will remain open through Dec. 10, but Van Dijk said operations could be extended with a second round of COVID-19 funding from the federal government.
“In the meantime we continue to conduct planning efforts around how we can continue testing in absence of federal dollars,” she said.
Members of the Wisconsin National Guard will staff the testing sites. Since the pandemic began, the Guard has collected more than 700,000 tests. Van Dijk said efforts continue to add more contact tracers across Wisconsin, who will become all the more critical with the addition of so many testing sites.
“We understand that more testing creates more work for contact tracing,” she said.
As of Thursday, 70 of the state’s 72 counties reported “very high” activity levels with COVID-19 infections, according to DHS.
The state reported a record 64 deaths and 5,262 cases Tuesday, the most since the pandemic began, prompting a strong urging from Evers and state health officials for Wisconsinites to stay home as much as possible.
On Thursday, Van Dijk said infections are occurring all across the state and in myriad settings, but said small gatherings appear to be a major source of transmission.
She also urged residents to be mindful that a test is merely a snapshot of a point in time and safety precautions such as wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding gatherings should be followed at all times, even after testing negative.
“Going to one of our testing sites and getting a negative test is not a ticket to go to the Packers party or to the bar or to any other large gathering,” Van Dijk said. “What that test means is that you’re negative right now … the minute you drive out of the testing site and go be exposed to other people, you could be exposed to COVID-19.”
Van Dijk said one in five hospitals in the state are experiencing critical staffing shortages. Despite rising cases, only seven patients were staying at the state’s alternate care facility Thursday. The facility opened in West Allis earlier this month to ease the burden on hospitals.
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