If Wisconsinites do not take personal responsibility to slow the spread of the coronavirus, cases and deaths will continue to skyrocket in the state, officials said Tuesday.
The state Department of Health Services reported 17 deaths due to the virus, bringing the death toll to 1,300 people. It was the highest number of deaths reported in a single day since late May, and is a dire sign that the recent surge in cases could have devastating effects.
“We are in a crisis right now,” said Ryan Westergaard, DHS chief medical officer. “The likelihood that this is going to get much worse before it gets better is a real one.”
Wisconsin also reported 2,367 new cases and 8,379 negative tests, for a positivity rate of 22%. The average positivity rate over the last seven days was 19.5%.
The average new daily case count over the last seven days was 2,255, higher than ever.
The number of people hospitalized due to the virus in Wisconsin was also higher than ever Tuesday, with 646 coronavirus patients occupying beds across the state, including 205 patients in ICU beds.
Hospitals, especially in northeast Wisconsin, are nearing capacity with COVID-19 patients and experiencing severe staffing shortages.
State officials are preparing for the possibility that they’ll need to open field hospitals.
The plan to open state-run field hospitals is the “worst-case scenario, the scenario that we hope we never get to, but that we are closer to getting to than we ever have been,” DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said.
State health officials were discussing all options with hospital administrators, Palm said, and would need four to seven days’ notice to set up and staff a field hospital.
Westergaard, Palm and Gov. Tony Evers spoke urgently Tuesday about the need for residents to take the virus seriously, wear masks and practice social distancing.
“We are nine months into this pandemic, and right now it’s not slowing down, it’s picking up speed,” Evers said.
He condemned the recent increase in “people carrying on business as usual” and attending large gatherings like weddings and parties.
“It isn’t safe. This virus is real and it’s devastating our communities and will continue to do so until we all get on the same team,” Evers said.
The state is descending into its worst crisis since the pandemic began, outpacing neighboring Midwestern states on case counts.
Wisconsin’s surge in cases, which largely began in early September and has rapidly accelerated in recent days, is unmatched by its neighboring states, according to a Journal Sentinel analysis.
The state has not yet reached the levels of infection seen during the spring and summer peaks in Florida, Arizona and New York, but it ranked No. 14 in an analysis of all 50 states’ peak levels of infection, when adjusting for population.
The Journal Sentinel analysis compared Wisconsin’s current surge over the last two weeks to the 14-day periods in which other states were reporting their peak case counts.
Evers, Palm blame virus surge on GOP lawsuit
Evers and Palm on Tuesday blamed legislative leaders for a pandemic they warn is inching close to being out of control in Wisconsin. They say the position Republican legislative leaders have taken during the coronavirus outbreak has limited the state’s ability to mitigate outbreaks and persuaded too many Wisconsinites to disregard suggestions to wear masks and avoid large gatherings.
“This fundamentally stems from the ruling in mid-May … we have seen a sort of slow burn that never reached a low enough level to really make us comfortable about where we were with this outbreak,” Palm said.
“Absent the tools that we had at the beginning of this pandemic, we are left with persuasion and word of mouth and goodwill,” she said.
The state Supreme Court in May struck down most of the emergency health orders Evers issued during the first weeks of the outbreak in Wisconsin, including the state’s stay-at-home order that closed scores of businesses and pushed hundreds of thousands of people out of work.
The lawsuit, brought by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, argued Palm did not have the authority to close businesses and schools after the expiration of the governor’s first public health emergency.
Since then, the Evers administration has been reluctant to take statewide action against the virus in the form of orders mandating rules but in late July declared a new public health emergency to institute a mask mandate.
That action is being challenged by a conservative law firm and opposed by Fitzgerald, Vos, and several Republican lawmakers who say Evers is overstepping his authority to impose the requirement.
The lawmakers’ aides did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Evers said comments from President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers downplaying the severity of the virus leads to more people behaving as if health rules don’t matter.
“When you have leadership at the top who is continually, even to this day, inconsistent with the severity of what this is … that sends a message that what we’re trying to accomplish is baloney. And it’s not baloney,” Evers said.
Trump is holding two rallies in Wisconsin on Saturday, one in La Crosse and another in Green Bay — two cities with some of the highest rates of infection in the country. In Green Bay, at least one hospital there is close to capacity because of surging cases.
Evers said Trump should either cancel his rallies or should insist that attendees wear masks to avoid making the situation in the two cities worse.
“He could wear one, too,” he said.
Andrew Mollica of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.