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Voters cast their ballots in Milwaukee amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 7, 2020. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) Voters cast their ballots in Milwaukee amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 7, 2020. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

Voters cast their ballots in Milwaukee amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 7, 2020. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

Eric Litke
By Eric Litke April 24, 2020

Chris Larson has no basis to connect spike in new coronavirus cases to election

If Your Time is short

  • This election-related post clearly attributed the large April 22 increase to voting

  • But the jump in new Wisconsin cases was actually due in large part to an outbreak at Brown County meatpacking plants.

  • We don’t yet know what impact the election had on April 22 or any other day’s cases, but at the time of this claim there was no evidence it played a large role

Politicians and armchair epidemiologists alike can’t seem to help themselves from making political hay from Wisconsin’s coronavirus trends.

And many are struggling to use the data accurately.

An April 17, 2020, article widely shared on Facebook claimed the in-person election had caused a "surge" in new cases. We rated that False.

Four days later, the state’s Republican legislative leaders said the state was "clearly" seeing a decline. That was Mostly False.

Now a Democratic state senator is again tying an uptick in cases to the state’s mid-pandemic election. Spoiler alert: The data work is still poor.

Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, posted the following points on Facebook on April 23:

19 - # of new COVID-19 cases linked to the April 7 election, per DHS.

5 - # of National Guard members displaying COVID-19 symptoms after assisting in the election.

57% - single-day increase in new COVID-19 cases two weeks after the election, compared with the previous two-week average.

Yet, some would say, it was "incredibly safe to go out." It's time we base decisions on science and the best information available, instead of what we think will benefit us politically.

We’re zooming on the 57% claim. 

There was indeed a large spike in cases April 22. But Larson is off base attributing that to the election.

Let’s see if Larson lived up to his own call to use the "best information available."

What he said

Asked for evidence of the claim, Justin Bielinski, who joined Larson’s office as communications director April 21, claimed the post did not attribute the jump in cases to the election.

"The claim was not that the jump was ‘due to’ or caused by the election, but merely that it was linked," Bielinski said in an email. "Linked is meant to convey correlation."

That, frankly, doesn’t make any sense.

The entirety of Larson’s post was about the election, and it described the April 22 increase as occurring "two weeks after the election." Larson followed that by quoting an oft-criticized "incredibly safe" statement Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, made while working the polls on Election Day in full protective gear.

The only reasonable takeaway for readers is that Larson is claiming the election had something to do with the increase.

Brown County meat plant outbreak driving state increase

A cursory glance at the data, or headlines around the state, show jumps around April 22 weren’t about the election in general, but one outlier county.

Brown County has seen a tremendous surge in new cases due to a COVID-19 outbreak at several meat-packing plants. From April 19 to April 24, the county jumped from 215 confirmed cases to 605.

County health officials have traced about half those cases to meatpacking employees and their families, primarily from JBS Packerland in Green Bay. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration are both investigating.

But let’s turn back to April 22, the date Larson cited.

Wisconsin posted a record 225 new cases that day, after averaging 152 per day the week leading up to that. (As usual, the change in new cases corresponded with a change in testing, which rose to 1,886 on April 22 compared to an average of 1,558 the preceding week).

But Brown County accounted for 88 of those cases. Officials haven’t said exactly how many of those 88 were meat-packing related, but they have said there is no evidence linking the recent spike and the April 7 election.

If we take Brown County out of the equation, the number of new cases in Wisconsin was 137, not far off the daily average of 121 over the preceding week.

Of course, there have been coronavirus cases linked to the election. And officials say it’s too soon to say for sure what impact the election had on the coronavirus trends in Wisconsin.

On April 21, 2020, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said 19 people who voted or worked the polls April 7 had tested positive, but officials said there is "no way to know with certainty" if they contracted the illness at the polls or somewhere else.

And those were factored into the state tallies before the April 22 spike Larson zeroed in on.

Our ruling

Larson referred to an April 22 jump in new coronavirus cases as coming "two weeks after the election," then mocked Vos’ quote about the election being "incredibly safe." The obvious takeaway is that the jump and election are related.

We haven’t seen any evidence that’s true.

The increase that day was due in large part to a spike in Brown County, where outbreaks at meat-packing plants led to a surge in new cases. Brown County officials say there has been no evidence of a link between their case surge and the election.

We can’t say for sure how the election impacted the April 22 statistics, but connecting the entirety of that day’s increase to the election is an exaggeration.

We rate Larson’s claim False.

Our Sources

Chris Larson, Facebook post, April 23, 2020

Email exchange with Justin Bielinski, spokesman for Chris Larson, April 23, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Two weeks after election, COVID-19 cases have not spiked in Wisconsin but experts urge caution about conclusions, April 22, 2020

Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Wisconsin COVID-19 Historical Cases (County Centroid), accessed April 24, 2020

Green Bay Press Gazette, No plan to close Green Bay meat-processing plants as Brown County cases exceed 500, over half from three sites, April 23, 2020

Green Bay Press Gazette, JBS plant in Green Bay linked to 147 coronavirus cases as meatpacking outbreaks continue to spread, April 22, 2020

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Chris Larson has no basis to connect spike in new coronavirus cases to election

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