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COVID-19 arrived in Wisconsin one year ago. Here's how local leaders are reflecting


MADISON, Wis.–Today, January 30, marks one year since UW Hospital treated its first patient experiencing symptoms of what was then a new virus. Testing would later prove that patient was the state’s first case of COVID-19 and the 12th overall in the United States.

We all have our own way of remembering those first few weeks.

“I started keeping a little notebook with just sort of notes about events or milestones in the pandemic,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said.

The first time Rhodes-Conway and other local leaders addressed COVID-19 was on February 5, 2020, less than a week after a person first reported symptoms of a new virus in UW’s emergency room.

“Today in Dane County, a person’s chances of getting sick from the novel coronavirus remains very low,” Rhodes-Conway said in a press conference on that day.

It didn’t stay that way for long, with more than 540,000 cases in Wisconsin just one year later.

“At the beginning, we were just trying to understand how is this thing transmitted? How do we protect ourselves? How do we protect people? What are risky behaviors?” Rhodes-Conway said.

City offices began closing and by March 13, Public Health Madison and Dane County Director Janel Heinrich issued the first order in the state, restricting gatherings of 250 people or more. Schools closed and gatherings were down to just 50 people just two days after that.

“It was a little overwhelming, because it was all happening at the same time, right. We’re reviewing the information that just emerged to then translate that into something that we would communicate out to the public within hours, you know, was a lot,” Heinrich said.

After two months of Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide Safer At Home order, it was struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on May 13. Dane County immediately issued a similar, local order, followed by 11 others that have been in place ever since.

“I have never questioned whether or not we should have done the orders we did and been as aggressive as we were from the beginning,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said. “I assumed that everybody else would be, too”

Parisi, Rhodes-Conway and Heinrich all agree, the hardest part of fighting a pandemic is doing it alone.

“We’ve been an island,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Surrounding counties and across the state there have been much looser restrictions, and that, frankly, it’s been a source of infection for us.”

Throughout a year of losses, there’s been victories worth celebrating.

Testing was once a limited and long process. Now, it’s completed locally with ease.

“We were calling down and saying, ‘You said that the result might be ready in three hours and it’s taking longer. We need this information,'” Heinrich said. “Now, you know, there’s a lab right down the street that is running our tests.”

Health care systems adapted to treat patients unable to leave their homes.

“Telemedicine, virtual visits, making sure that there were protocols in the health system to keep people safe, and then realizing that with all these things, it worked well,” UW Health’s Dr. Nasia Safdar said.

Neighbors helped neighbors.

“As long as we’re looking out for one another, there will always be someone looking out for us,” Parisi said. “I think that’s the strongest take-a-way from this experience.”

Although a vaccine rollout is taking longer than Wisconsinites would like, Safdar said it was an incredible feat to get here so quickly.

“That is a relatively small hurdle compared to developing it in the first place,” Safdar said. “If we can make an amazing vaccine, we can certainly get it out into the field.”

So, when Rhodes-Conway looks back through her notebook, she’ll remember that leading a community through a pandemic isn’t something she signed up for.

“Would it have been something I wanted to do? No, it’s not something that you say ‘Oh sure, that sounds like fun,'” Rhodes-Conway said.

But, it’s something she embraced.

“I do think you get challenges you’re able to deal with and I’m proud of the way we’ve handled this one,” Rhodes-Conway said.

Our COVID-19 anniversary reflection continues with city and county leaders sharing what the road to recovery looks like on Fox 47 News at Nine on Sunday, Jan. 31.