Wisconsin on Wednesday reported a record 48 deaths from the coronavirus and admitted its first patient at a field hospital as U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson falsely claimed the state had flattened its curve of COVID-19 deaths.
The Republican from Oshkosh contended the public had been tricked into “mass hysteria” a day after state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, the chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, maintained there is nothing more the government can do to combat an illness that had killed 1,681 in Wisconsin as of Wednesday.
“Generally deaths are still pretty flat because we’ve flattened the curve,” Johnson said during a call hosted by business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. “We’ve gotten better at treating it.”
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He made the comments just hours before the state released figures showing the last seven days were the deadliest of the pandemic, with 173 deaths due to the virus between Oct. 14 and Wednesday.
The five counties reporting the most deaths in the last week were Waukesha, with 10; Outagamie and Waupaca, with nine each; and Brown and Marathon, with eight each.
Health officials don’t see the issue the way Johnson does.
“Of course the curve has not flattened and we don’t have the virus under control,” said Patrick Remington, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist and director of the preventive medicine residency program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Johnson, who tested positive for the virus at the beginning of the month, said the illness causes problems for just a couple of days for most people.
“We have unfortunately been snookered into this mass hysteria that isn’t even close to the real risk,” he said. “And so we’ve shut down our economy, we’ve had this economic devastation.”
Remington said that while only a small percentage of people who contract COVID-19 will have serious cases, that number multiplied by Wisconsin’s population still translates to a large number.
In the last week, there was an average of 21 deaths per day. That is more than four times as high as it was a month ago when there was an average of five deaths per day.
Also Wednesday, the state Department of Health Services reported 4,205 new coronavirus cases as it continued to work through a backlog of data from a planned weekend system outage.
The average number of new daily cases over the last seven days was higher than ever, at 3,444. Health Services 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 nearly quintupled in the last two months.
The positivity rate, averaged over the last seven days, is 22.6%. That is the number of residents who have tested positive for the first time divided by the number of residents who have ever been tested.
The field hospital at State Fair Park admitted its first patient Wednesday, according to state officials. Known as an alternate care facility, the 530-bed hospital was opened to free up bed space at overwhelmed hospitals especially in northeastern and central Wisconsin. It was established to treat COVID-19 patients who are less sick but still require hospital care.
Throughout the state, 1,190 people were hospitalized with the virus Wednesday, including 299 in intensive care units. Both numbers were slightly lower than the day before, when the state notched record highs.
Still, hospitals across the state continued to be at or near capacity, and intensive care beds were in short supply. In the Fox Valley and southeastern Wisconsin, 90% of hospital beds were in use, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association.
But there’s nothing more the state Legislature can do about the surge in cases, according to Sanfelippo, the New Berlin Republican who heads the Assembly’s health panel.
On Tuesday, he told the WisconsinEye Public Affairs Network that lawmakers had done all they could do by passing legislation six months ago to help hospitals and the unemployed.
“Beyond that, I think we have to remember that this is a virus. There is nothing that government can do,” he said. “You know, we can’t wave a magic wand and make it go away.”
Sanfelippo’s Democratic challenger, Jessica Katzenmeyer, said Republicans who control the Legislature should be doing more to respond to the pandemic.
“Rep. Sanfelippo and his party’s inaction is prolonging this crisis and making it harder for us to bounce back,” she said in a statement.
The Legislature in April passed the wide-ranging coronavirus legislation, which allowed the state to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal help, suspended a one-week waiting period to claim unemployment benefits, protected businesses from litigation and gave insurance protections to those infected with COVID-19.
Lawmakers have not passed any legislation in the six months since then.
“We have to realize that there isn’t a lot we can do as politicians,” Sanfelippo told WisconsinEye. “But we need to sit back, let the medical community figure this out, give them the resources they need to do it and let them do it.”
Wisconsin is among the states that have passed the least legislation related to COVID-19 in the country, according to a database from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Louisiana has passed 71 bills, California has passed 51 and New Jersey has passed 50.
Three states — Montana, North Dakota and Texas — have done less than Wisconsin because they have passed no COVID-19 legislation. Like Wisconsin, Indiana has approved one piece of legislation.
In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers have gone to court to try to undo major parts of Evers’ coronavirus response plan. In May, the state Supreme Court sided with Republican legislators and ended the administration’s stay-at-home order.
More recently, GOP legislators filed a legal brief to end the state’s mask mandate, but that effort has been unsuccessful so far.