Gov. Tony Evers implored residents to take action to turn around the weeks-long surge in coronavirus cases in Wisconsin or else the economic consequences on businesses would be dire.
“If we continue to make excuses for not doing this, we will have more deaths, we will have more people with COVID-19, and frankly, we will have a lot less economic activity in the state of Wisconsin. This is a critical time, folks,” Evers said in a news conference Tuesday.
“Our economy is going to tank, and no one wants that,” he said.
Evers’ comments came the day after a judge reinstated his order limiting customers in bars and restaurants. A Tavern League lobbyist warned the order would force many businesses to close.
In recent weeks, coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths have climbed faster and higher than ever with no sign of slowing down.
The state Department of Health Services reported 4,591 new cases as the state worked through a backlog of data from the weekend system outage.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 1,192 coronavirus patients in hospital care across Wisconsin, including 315 people in intensive care units. Both numbers were record-highs.
The state also reported 33 deaths due to the virus, bringing the death toll to 1,633.
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The average number of new daily cases over the last seven days was higher than ever, at 3,287. DHS officials have said the seven-day average is a better indicator of current trends because adding in the backlogged cases will result in higher-than-usual daily totals for the next few days.
The daily average has nearly doubled in the last month and more than quadrupled in the last two months.
The positivity rate, averaged over the last seven days, is 21.7%. It is the number of residents who have tested positive for the first time divided by the number of residents who have ever been tested.
“Back in March and April, we all stayed home to flatten the curve and protect our frontline health care workers and hospitals,” said Andrea Palm, DHS secretary-designee.
“We’re in a much worse place now than we were in March and April. Now is the time for all of us to double down and do our part,” she said.
Cases in Wisconsin began rising in early September and have picked up speed in recent weeks. The increase in deaths and patients receiving hospital treatment for the virus is a result of the high numbers about a month ago, Palm said.
The crisis will worsen in coming weeks as hospitalization and death numbers typically lag behind rising case counts, she said.
“This virus is claiming the lives of more of our friends and neighbors, and our hospitals are stretched too thin,” Palm said. “This isn’t sustainable and it’s going to get worse.”
Hospitals across the state continue to be at or near capacity and are figuring out ways to free up bed space, Palm said. But the field hospital at State Fair Park has not received any patients yet since opening last week.
College students ‘masked up pretty darn well,’ have slowed spread of virus
College students in early September were the focus of health officials’ concern as outbreaks spread rapidly across campuses. Since then, the virus has extended to all corners of the state and sickened people of all ages.
In urging residents to take the virus seriously, health officials on Tuesday used college students as an example of successfully slowing the spread of the virus by socially distancing and wearing masks.
Ryan Westergaard, DHS chief medical officer, said UW schools are testing thousands of people each day and seeing low numbers of cases.
“We learned a fast and hard lesson at the UW-Madison campus of how explosively the virus can spread in dormitory settings,” he said. “One of the most encouraging things I think that we’ve seen, on the epidemiology side, is how quickly we were able to turn that corner.”
He said students and campus leaders “deserve a lot of credit” for their efforts in minimizing the outbreaks.
Milwaukee officials see concerning trends
While Milwaukee County is not seeing as great an increase in coronavirus cases as elsewhere in Wisconsin, officials said Tuesday the high number of cases and positivity rate indicates a troubling trend.
With a total of 35,902 confirmed cases and 454 deaths in Milwaukee County since the pandemic began, there appears to be “no end in sight,” said Ben Weston, medical services director for Milwaukee County’s Office of Emergency Management.
“The fall and winter surges that we feared seem to be upon us,” Weston said during a call with reporters Tuesday afternoon.
The City of Milwaukee’s average daily positivity rate is 10.2%, which Acting City of Milwaukee Health Department Director Marlaina Jackson said is “super concerning for us.”
Jackson cautioned that health departments have seen spikes in coronavirus cases one to two weeks following holidays, and with Halloween next week, followed by Thanksgiving and Christmas she warned people to make safe decisions about gathering for celebrations and to continue to wear masks and social distance.
On Monday the city opened a free coronavirus testing site at Miller Park while closing test sites at UMOS on the city’s south side and Barack Obama Middle School on the north side. Mayor Tom Barrett said 1,658 people were tested at Miller Park on the first day, where some people complained of long lines.
Barrett and Jackson attributed long wait times to the first day of operation and a new testing staff consisting of city employees and people newly hired. Jackson said some of the five lanes were rerouted later in the day to better accommodate people at Miller Park.
“This is scary stuff and people are really putting their lives on the line,” Barrett said of health workers. “We’re all so tired of this. But we can’t turn a blind eye to the growing number of cases.”
Outbreaks at courthouse, hospital rehab unit
Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center on Milwaukee’s south side was investigating an outbreak in the unit, where patients go to recover from surgeries, strokes and other ailments.
As of Monday, St. Luke’s had at least 15 cases among patients on the rehab unit and tests were pending on staff members who were potentially affected.
On Oct. 10, Froedtert tested an entire rehab unit and found 15 patients and staff members with the virus.
And in Waukesha, a courtroom discussion during an unsuccessful effort to postpone a trial in the courthouse revealed what are believed to be cases of COVID-19 on the campus.
A transcript of an interchange between an attorney from the Waukesha Public Defender’s Office and a circuit judge alludes to 10 staff members from the district attorney’s office and five clerk staff members with COVID-related illnesses or positive tests prior to Oct. 16.
In addition, an unspecified number of officers — presumably all sheriff’s department staff members — had been reported ill, according to the courtroom conversation.
Raquel Rutledge and Jim Riccioli of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.