COVID-19 Came To Wisconsin 1 Year Ago. Here’s A Look Back At The State’s Pandemic Year.

It’s been one year since Wisconsin confirmed its first case of COVID-19. That infection, of someone who had traveled to China and gotten symptoms on the plane ride home, was contained. The patient recovered and the disease didn’t spread.

But in the weeks and months that followed, the pandemic would find its way into every community. 

As of Thursday, nearly 550,000 people in Wisconsin have tested positive for the disease, according to state data. Close to 25,000 people have been hospitalized. Almost 6,000 have died. And the pandemic has transformed the lives even of those fortunate enough not to be part of those groups.

These are some of the pandemic’s inflection points in Wisconsin, told in the voices of elected officials, health care workers and everyday residents:


“Earlier today, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced that we do have a person with the novel coronavirus here in Dane County.”
— Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, Feb. 5, 2020

“It’s reasonable to assume today’s case will not be the last positive case we hear about in our region.”
— Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, Feb. 5, 2020

Bram Sable-Smith/WPR

Angela Major/WPR

“We expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but more of exactly when and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
— Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Feb. 25, 2020

“The risk to the majority of Wisconsinites remains low. That said, we can all do our part to help prevent the spread of the illness to others.”
— Gov. Tony Evers, on the declaration of a public health emergency, March 12, 2020

“We really need to double down on our efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 here in the state of Wisconsin.”
— Andrea Palm, Wisconsin Health Secretary, March 13, 2020


“Closing our schools is not a decision I made lightly, but keeping our kids, our educators, our families, and our communities safe is a top priority as we continue our work to respond to and prevent further spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin.”
— Gov. Tony Evers, March 13, 2020

“I went into Walmart to pick up just a couple of things to make sure I didn’t run out. I thought, well, I’ll get one pack of toilet paper. No, it’s all gone. People are just nuts.”
— Geri Leis, Sparta, March 17, 2020

“With great sadness, last night we confirmed the first two deaths related to COVID-19. And by the time we woke up this morning, there had been a third.”
— Gov. Tony Evers, March 19, 2020

A Pandemic Election

“Conducting this election in the typical way will be a logistical train wreck and a public health travesty.”
— Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich, on the April 7 presidential primaries and state Supreme Court elections, March 20, 2020

“People across our state are still out and about unnecessarily that are putting our friends, our neighbors, and our communities at risk. Please #StayHome and help us save lives.”
— Gov. Tony Evers, announcing state’s “Safer at Home” order, March 23, 2020

Angela Major/WPR

Angela Major/WPR

“Without doubt, the April 7 election day will create unprecedented burdens not just for aspiring voters, but also for poll workers, clerks, and indeed the state. … (It is not) appropriate for a federal district court to act as the state’s chief health official by taking that step for them.”
— Judge William Conley, declining to postpone Wisconsin’s spring elections, April 2, 2020

“We may not be able to put 10, 20, 30,000 people in one place. … (The Democratic Party) may have to do a virtual convention.”
— Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, on the possibility of canceling the in-person Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, April 5, 2020

“We only have five polling places in the city and I’ve been out here for almost two hours.”
— Milwaukee voter, April 7, 2020

“People have been in pretty good spirits, happy to be able to vote, and at the same time doing it in a way that’s really safe.”
— Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, to WTMJ-TV, April 7, 2020

“The COVID-19 pandemic has essentially made us completely change everything that we do.”
— Kris Tazelaar, Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, on the skyrocketing need for food assistance, April 20, 2020

Justices End Stay-At-Home Order

“Purporting to act under color of State law, an unelected, unconfirmed cabinet secretary has laid claim to a suite of czar-like powers — unlimited in scope and indefinite in duration — over the people of Wisconsin.”
— Republican lawmakers on Health Secretary Andrea Palm, in their complaint asking the state Supreme Court to block Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order, April 21, 2020

“Today, I had my first friend die of COVID. Not acquaintance. Not patient. But friend.”
— Emergency room nurse Mariah Clark, April 23, 2020

“Palm’s Emergency Order … is declared unlawful, invalid, and unenforceable.”
— Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, in court order striking down “Safer at Home” order, May 13, 2020

Brad Horn/Wisconsin Watch

Brad Horn/Wisconsin Watch

“They have provided no plan. There’s no question among anybody that people are going to get sick, and that Republicans own that chaos.”
— Gov. Tony Evers, reacting to Supreme Court decision, May 13, 2020

“I’ve had a couple phone calls on my personal phone already this morning, saying, ‘Are you guys open?’ Yep. So, they’re coming.”
— Tina Breimon, manager, Izzy’s Bar in Superior, May 14, 2020

“The immediate future presents multiple levels of risk for our fans, and we choose the side of safety.”
— Don Smiley, CEO of Milwaukee World Festival, on cancellation of Summerfest, June 4, 2020

“I am haunted by the disease curves I see from the Spanish influenza pandemic 100 years ago, that had a spike in the spring, a quiet summer and the most deadly spike in the fall.”
— Deputy Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk, July 15, 2020

Angela Major/WPR

Angela Major/WPR

“This was the day we were hoping to welcome 50,000 people and seeing and upwards of $200 million for our economy. A lot has changed.”
— Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, on the mostly virtual Democratic National Convention, Aug. 17, 2020

‘We’re In The Surge’: Hospitalizations Spike

“Our surge plan expands into the garage. It opens up more beds. We’re expanding into lobbies, we’re putting people where we wouldn’t normally put patients.”
— Dr. Sue Cullinan, emergency room physician at Mayo Clinic’s Eau Claire hospital, Oct. 12, 2020 

“I wish you had a Republican governor, because you’ve got to open your state up. You’ve got to open it up. You’ve got to open your schools up.”
— President Donald Trump in Janesville, Oct. 17, 2020

“We’re all making efforts to make sure people can vote and can vote safely. We’re excited to see who wins, and I think we’re all a little bit competitive and excited to see which city will have the highest amount of participation.”
— Racine Mayor Cory Mason, on a competition among five Wisconsin mayors to see which city could have the most early voters for the fall 2020 election, Oct. 26, 2020

“The thing that still bothers me is that my dad is one of those numbers. I just hate that he and so many other people’s parents have been added to such an anonymous list.”
— Harper Marten, whose father died of COVID-19, Oct. 28, 2020

“We’re in the surge. Our numbers are at an all-time high in our system.”
— Tammy Simon, vice president of patient safety, Marshfield Clinic, Oct. 30, 2020

“Nurses are picking up extra shifts, working 16-hour days up to eight days in a row, because they feel guilty that their coworkers are working short in an already stressful situation.”
— Theresa Weiler, Marshfield Clinic nurse supervisor, Nov. 18, 2020

“Our hospitalization rate continues to look like a mountain, and we’re still climbing that mountain. We really need help from the people of Wisconsin to help us shut this down.”
— Dr. Ann Sheehy, University Hospital, Madison, Nov. 20, 2020

Vaccines Arrive, For Some

“I’m hoping it’s going to be like the polio vaccine that people will be clamoring for this.”
— Dr. Neil Bard, Richland Hospital Clinic, on the COVID-19 vaccine, Dec. 9, 2020

“I didn’t think I would be getting it quite so soon. … I’m really happy this is happening.”
— Emergency room nurse Mariah Clark on getting vaccinated, Dec 28, 2020

“The vaccine is a valuable tool, and we are grateful to have it, and grateful to be rolling it out as quickly and equitably as we can — and at the same time, we need to continue using all our other tools we have used to fight this pandemic.”
— Deputy Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk, Jan. 21, 2021

“It’s really complicated to go from zero to 100 mph and be writing the rules as you go,”
— Patrick Remington, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s preventive medicine residency program, on vaccine rollout, Jan. 25, 2021

“The vaccine’s on the horizon, there’s going to be an end date to this pandemic. It’s really easy to start thinking it’s over, let’s celebrate. It’s just not, quite yet.”
— Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health Chief Quality and Safety Officer, Jan. 27, 2021