The United States passed Italy as the country with the most deaths from the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo: MIGUEL MEDINA, Getty Images)
The coronavirus pandemic reverberated locally and nationally Saturday.
In Milwaukee County, several cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at the public behavioral health hospital, and the children's unit has been shut down.
At the same time, Milwaukee doctors were seeing a glimmer of hope in treating people with the novel coronavirus. A Milwaukee man was reported to be in stable condition after an experimental plasma transfusion at Aurora St. Lukes Medical Center.
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Across the nation, the grim toll kept mounting as the United States surpassed Italy as the country with the most deaths from the outbreak.
More than 20,000 people in the United States have died from complications from COVID-19 as of late Saturday afternoon, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Around 19,500 have died in Italy, once the center of the pandemic and a country that is far smaller than the U.S.
National health experts continue to say that social distancing and stay-at-home practices are having an effect. But they caution that models showing how the virus is progressing change daily, and that it likely hasn't peaked yet.
At least 138 people have died in Wisconsin as a result of the coronavirus as of late Saturday, up from 128 a day earlier, according to state and county reports. Milwaukee County has had the most deaths, at least 77 as of Saturday.
All of this took place on a spring weekend that brought out walkers in need of some fresh air and sunshine.
Many questions, few answers
At the Milwaukee County public behavioral health hospital, questions are arising about the swiftness and effectiveness of the coronavirus response.
A union leader representing hospital staff members said employees were not protected quickly enough, though they now have access to masks and other protective equipment.
Jeff Weber, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, the union representing workers at the hospital, said the first test on a patient with COVID-19 was March 25.
Katharine Foley, a spokesperson for the county’s behavioral health division, would not say exactly how many people tested positive or whether they were staff or patients. She would not say when the first person tested positive.
Foley said the hospital has set up an isolation unit for any patients with COVID-19 and stopped housing multiple patients in shared rooms. She said the division would not share how this has affected the number of patients being served, as the data has not yet been reported to the Mental Health Board.
Foley did not answer questions about the type or amount of protective equipment available to workers, saying only that it is “sufficient” to follow recommended safety protocols.
A health worker at the hospital, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, said the day before the first patient was tested, staff were concerned about the patient’s symptoms and decided to wear protective gear. The worker said a supervisor told them to remove the protective wear or they would be written up.
After the positive test, Weber said staff were told they could ask their supervisor for protective wear. But he said when an employee requested it March 25, the employee could not reach a supervisor until the shift was ending.
Jamie Lucas, executive director of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, said multiple health workers had problems reaching their supervisors to get protective wear.
“Nobody felt like they understood the process,” Lucas said.
Foley would not confirm whether these incidents occurred but noted guidelines are changing rapidly. She said the division “takes all staff concerns seriously and has increased management communications to ensure any challenges are addressed.”
Lucas said he is aware of two county behavioral health staff members being quarantined. One tested positive and one wasn’t tested, he said.
The worker who asked to remain anonymous said staff members have been able to use more protective equipment recently.
Plasma transfusion brings hope
On the treatment front, an elderly man critically ill from the coronavirus is among the first few patients in Milwaukee to receive a plasma transfusion in hopes that the antibodies from someone who has recovered from COVID-19 will help his body fight the virus.
"He tolerated it well and is in stable condition," said Dr. Ajay Sahajpal, director of Advocate Aurora’s Health transplant program, and member of the team that administered the transfusion on Friday at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center.
“We won’t know if he’s out of the woods for a week or so," Sahaipal said.
Plasma transfusions are much like blood transfusions. They take a couple of hours and carry similar risks of fever, allergic reactions and the slight possibility for transmission of infectious disease.
They’ve been used historically as last resorts to help squash rapidly spreading contagions.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this month approved clinical trials for the use of plasma transfusions in combating COVID-19 and has approved the treatment as an emergency investigational new drug.
Advocate Aurora Health and other health care systems in the region are partnering with the Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin and the American Red Cross in Illinois to collect plasma from patients who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
“The biggest limitation to scaling this more broadly is that there are just not enough donors,” Sahajpal said.
Ballots on the bubble
Soon, the pandemic story will shift back to politics in Wisconsin.
With clerks getting ready to tabulate results from Tuesday's election, they're also grappling with what should be done about ballots received without a postmark?
The Milwaukee Board of Commissioners has called a special meeting Sunday to address the issue.
Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said the city received 354 ballots without postmarks.
“The Wisconsin Election Commission left it up to local boards of canvassers to make a determination on which ballots without postmarks should or should not be counted in the election,” Albrecht said. “The state really left it up to municipalities to decide, which is very interesting because you could see a lot of different approaches.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that ballots postmarked by April 7 and received by municipalities by April 13 can be counted in the election.
Albrecht said the city plans to release the unofficial results of the election around 4 p.m. on Monday.
Milwaukee City Clerk Jim Owczarski said if ballots without postmarks were received on Wednesday and Thursday, they were likely mailed Tuesday.
"My expectation is that (the Board of Election Commissioners is) going to choose to accept those ballots as legitimate," Owczarski said.
Journal Sentinel reporters Bill Glauber, Mark Johnson and Annysa Johnson and USA TODAY reporter Jesse Yomtov contributed to this article.
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