MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Health officials in Wisconsin said they have identified at least seven people who may have contracted the coronavirus from participating in the April 7 election, the first such cases following in-person voting that was held despite widespread concern about the public health risks.
The infections involve six voters and one poll worker in Milwaukee, where difficulty finding poll workers forced the city to pare nearly 200 voting locations back to just five, and where voters — some in masks, some with no protection — were forced to wait in long lines for hours.
It’s not certain that the seven people contracted the virus at the polls. The possible connection was made because local health officials are now asking newly infected people whether they participated in the election.
“It means they were at the polls, which is a potential exposure, but (we) can’t say they definitely got it at the polls,” said Darren Rauch, the health officer/director for suburban Greenfield, and one of the health officials helping with the coronavirus response in the Milwaukee area.
Milwaukee officials are still gathering information from about 70% of people who have tested positive since the election and hope to have a full report later this week, city health commissioner Jeanette Kowalik said.
The election, which included a presidential primary as well as a state Supreme Court race and local offices, took place after a legal struggle between Democrats and Republicans. A day before the election, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers ordered that it be delayed and shifted to all-mail voting, only to be overturned when Republican legislative leaders won an appeal in the state’s conservative-controlled Supreme Court.
Thousands of Wisconsin voters stayed home, unwilling to risk their health and unable to be counted because requested absentee ballots never arrived.
State health officials had warned of an expected increase in infections from the election. State health secretary Andrea Palm said Monday that they had not shown up, but noted that symptoms may not have surfaced yet.
Health officials say symptoms of COVID-19 typically appear within two weeks of exposure to the virus, and Tuesday is the 14th day since the election. That means more voters and poll workers could come forward with infections in the coming days.
Representatives for Evers and for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald — both Republicans — haven’t responded to emails seeking comment.
The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. To date, 242 people have died in Wisconsin and more than 4,600 have tested positive.
Wisconsin’s election has been a flashpoint of contention as Democrats and Republicans grapple with how to conduct elections in the coronavirus era as the November presidential race approaches.
Democrats and voting rights groups have filed lawsuits to expand mail and absentee voting options, and pushed for an extra $2 billion to help states adjust their election systems. National Republicans are fighting those efforts, while President Donald Trump claims without evidence that mail-in voting is vulnerable to fraud.
Wisconsin is a key state in the 2020 presidential election. Democrats and liberal groups are intent on reminding voters that Republicans insisted on holding the April election despite the public health crisis. American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super PAC, jumped on the report of election-related cases, accusing Trump of not taking responsibility for the victims.