After Wisconsin held in-person voting open for the state’s primary election on April 7, at least 19 people who said they voted or worked at one of the polling stations have tested positive for COVID-19. According to the health department, the possibility for more cases tied to election is likely as only 30% of the data from new cases has been collected so far.
Seven of those cases in Milwaukee were confirmed to be directly connected to the state’s election by health officials; however, it is possible that some cases did not originate there as some patients reported other possible exposures. "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," said Wisconsin Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ last-minute appeal to delay primary voting until June was overturned within just hours by the Wisconsin Supreme Court earlier this month. The state’s decision to proceed with in-person voting in the middle of a pandemic was widely criticized by both candidates and health experts. At the time, stay-at-home orders were already in place as more than 2,500 confirmed cases and 85 deaths had already been reported.
To move forward with in-person voting, Milwaukee’s 180 polling stations were consolidated to just five where voters – many wearing masks and attempting to maintain social distancing – were in lines stretching for blocks. Many poll workers quit, leaving 300 National Guard troops to replace them. After the election, Wisconsin’s health department announced that it would be specifically monitoring the cases from exposure at the polls to see what impact it would have on the spread of the virus.
"While we continue to monitor cases of COVID-19 linked to election activity, we know that gatherings such as (the election) are detrimental to the efforts to slow the spread of this pandemic," Dr. Ben Weston, the Medical Director for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, said in the statement reported by CNN.
Records show that 1,282,762 people in Wisconsin requested absentee ballots, but according to The New York Times, thousands say they never received them. President Donald Trump, despite voting via absentee ballot himself for the Republican primary in Florida, has been a staunch advocate for the option, referring to the process as “corrupt.” In late March, Trump told reporters that “mail in ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they’re cheaters.”
Wisconsin has more than 4,600 cases and 244 reported deaths as of April 22. Weston said the state’s health department plans to publish a complete report of the election-related spread on Friday, with a complete county update next week.