MADISON – State health officials are working on a plan to deploy Wisconsin National Guard members across the state to increase free, consistent coronavirus testing outside Madison and Milwaukee as coronavirus infections spread statewide.
The plan aims to provide all areas of the state with free, scheduled testing for the first time and seeks to build a system of testing sites before the Wisconsin National Guard’s testing mission is scheduled to end in December.
“If you looked at the maps of where the virus was most prevalent back in April and May and June, it was very much a south, southeastern Wisconsin pandemic,” Deputy Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said in an interview. “This is now affecting the whole state.”
The move requires officials in Dane and Milwaukee counties to replace National Guard members who work at their popular testing sites with civilian workers by Thanksgiving.
In Dane County, that means the number of days and hours free testing is available will be reduced at the popular Madison site that has conducted far more tests than any other site in the state.
A spokeswoman for Public Health Madison & Dane County said the site at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison will be fully staffed with local workers by October, allowing the site to remain open until at least Dec. 30.
But new staffing also will change when the site is open in order to “accommodate staffing while also maintaining capacity to process about 10,000 tests per week,” spokeswoman Christy Vogt said.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, testing will be available between noon and 8 p.m. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, testing will take place between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Currently, the site is open Monday through Saturday and stays open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Milwaukee’s National Guard testing sites are UMOS, 2701. S. Chase Ave. on the south side, and Barack Obama School-Custer Stadium, 4300 W. Fairmount Ave. on the north side. Current hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Mayor Tom Barrett said the city has been working with the National Guard and state officials on a transition plan to prepare for the end of the Guard’s deployment at the city’s testing sites.
“We’re very thankful to the governor and to the National Guard and they’ve been tremendous partners. But we knew that that was a temporary solution,” Barrett said.
His office said in a statement Monday that details are being finalized.
“We are working to ensure Milwaukee has community COVID-19 testing options available to residents throughout the county so that we can maintain the capacity needed to keep our community safe and prevent the spread of the disease,” his office said in the statement.
Charlotte Erlandson, training and exercise coordinator for the Department of Health Services, said state health officials are working with local departments and the Guard to figure out what kind of testing schedule makes sense for the area.
At least 7 regional testing sites planned
Erlandson said the goal is to increase testing capacity across the state and provide a dependable testing schedule for communities. The goal is to set up at least one permanent testing site, like those in Madison and Milwaukee, in each of the seven regions of the state, Willems Van Dijk said.
The regions are defined by DHS as northwest, western, south central, southeast, northeast, Fox Valley area and north central.
Willems Van Dijk said the state has facilitated regular testing across the state since the pandemic hit the state, but this will provide more testing on a fixed schedule.
Maj. Joe Trovato, spokesman for the Wisconsin National Guard, said about 700 guard members will continue to facilitate the testing but in new areas of the state.
Willems Van Dijk said DHS will continue to provide test supplies to the Madison and Milwaukee sites, and federal funding through the relief package known as the CARES Act will pay for the counties’ staffing and costs to facilitate the testing, like computer tablets.
After December, however, it’s unclear what will happen to the state’s testing apparatus. National Guard members are under federal orders that expire at the end of December, when federal funding for the Guard also is set to end.
“After December is a pretty uncertain period of time right now,” Willems Van Dijk said. “I think many of us are very hopeful that Congress will recognize that COVID-19 will continue to be a major response need after the first of the year and will enact legislation to support that.”
Without federal funding, guard members will be funded through local and state budgets if officials at both levels of government choose to continue to provide the free testing sites.
In Dane County, health officials are still assessing whether the county can provide free testing after December.
“We are assessing the feasibility of continuing free testing into the new year, which will depend on staffing, funding and the ability to secure tests,” Vogt said.
Willems Van Dijk said state and Guard officials plan to train local workers over the next three months “so when the time does come that the National Guard is no longer on orders to support this effort, we built a workforce across the state.”
Mary Spicuzza and Alison Dirr the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.