‘It’s a nightmare scenario:’ Wisconsin reports more than 5,200 cases, 64 deaths in worst day of pandemic yet

Wisconsin reported its most dismal coronavirus numbers yet Tuesday as state health officials urged residents to leave home only when absolutely necessary and warned the crisis would continue escalating.

The state Department of Health Services reported 5,262 new cases and 64 deaths Tuesday, both records far above any previous daily counts. The death toll now stands at 1,852.

There were 1,385 people hospitalized due to the virus in Wisconsin, including 339 in intensive care units. Both were all-time highs. Hospitalizations have seen rapid, unimpeded growth for the last five weeks, straining short-staffed health care systems across the state.

“This is no longer a slow-motion disaster,” said Gregory Poland, director of the vaccine research group at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “This is a disaster in warp speed. And it’s maddening to me as a physician because a whole lot of people have died and are dying.”

Wisconsin’s two-month-long outbreak is one of the worst in the country, and as the state repeatedly breaks daily case records, health experts expect hospitalizations and deaths to continue rising.

“It’s a nightmare scenario, frankly, that this could get quite a bit worse in the next several weeks or months before it gets better,” Ryan Westergaard, DHS chief medical officer, said in a news conference.

On Monday the state passed 200,000 cases, with the second 100,000 all coming in the last 36 days.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it: We are facing an urgent crisis and there is an imminent risk to you, your family members, your friends, your neighbors and the people you care about,” Gov. Tony Evers said.

DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm asked residents to stay home and avoid social gatherings no matter the legal challenges to the state’s emergency health order. Staying home helps protect health care workers and those in the state who are most vulnerable or likely to die if infected, Palm said.

Several hospitals report critical or imminent staffing shortages because workers were exposed to the virus in the community and must quarantine.

“People should stay home as much as possible, order or no order, enforceable or not enforceable,” Palm said. “It is the safest and best thing we can do to stop the spread of this disease.”

Residents should limit social interactions to a circle of five people, Evers said.

“We need folks to forget (the) ‘It won’t happen to me’ mentality,” he said. “We need folks to stop treating this virus as something that’s only happening to other people in other places. This virus is here and it’s spreading all around us.”

The outbreaks that began in college towns in early September and shifted to northeast and central Wisconsin weeks later now have spread to “every corner of this state,” Palm said.

“It’s the worst it’s ever been. The concerning thing is that this has been going on for several weeks and it doesn’t seem like we’ve peaked,” said Nasia Safdar, medical director of infection control at UW Health. 

The average daily case count over the last seven days is 3,975, just under the all-time high set Saturday. It is more than four times the seven-day average two months ago, when cases were starting to surge in Wisconsin.

The seven-day average for deaths is 31. Two months ago, the average was six.

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Health experts call for stricter government response to state’s outbreak

Safdar suggested Wisconsin consider returning to some version of the stay-at-home measures the state employed in March when the pandemic first hit.

“Our response has not been proportionate to the crisis,” she said.

“We need to do more testing of more different types of people,” she said. “We need to move about less. … I think for the next few weeks there needs to be a concerted message that we need to stop having social gatherings no matter how small.”

She said that the state must look at enforcing these measures.

“Enforcement is the piece that’s missing so far,” she said.

Poland, of Mayo Clinic, also called for stricter enforcement.

“What politicians are learning the hard way is that this virus cares not one whit about your business or your rights or your political affiliation. It is blind to all of that,” he said. “This virus will search out susceptible people.”

Poland said the state has two options: either allow the virus to overwhelm hospitals and kill many people; or issue and enforce a mask mandate and social distancing rules.

“I doubt that yesterday 64 people died on Wisconsin highways, yet if I drove by not wearing a seatbelt I would be ticketed and rightfully so,” Poland said.  

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Tuesday he wanted more testing, faster testing, and is considering a second relief package to help Wisconsin navigate the pandemic.

“First, we need to take politics out of it and work together to fight the virus,” Vos said in a statement. “Obviously, what we’re doing now as a state isn’t working.”

Vos said he wants more rapid antigen testing and urged residents to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control.

He also said he would be willing to look at a second state relief package if Congress fails to provide additional state assistance, that could include $75 million allocated in the first relief package that Evers did not spend in light of needed budget cuts.

Vos also said he plans to review what reauthorizations may be necessary from the federal relief package known as the CARES Act. 

“I agree with Governor Evers that our success in fighting the virus rests on individual responsibility. I encourage everyone to adhere to CDC guidelines: wear a mask, socially distance, frequently wash your hands and follow local restrictions,” he said. 

RELATED:DHS: When vaccine arrives, Wisconsin will prioritize health-care workers, at-risk patients

Milwaukee officials raise alarms about worsening crisis

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said Wisconsin’s fortunes compared to other states have changed dramatically in recent weeks.

“I don’t think there should be anybody who’s watching this who should be under the mistaken notion that somehow we are turning the corner on this disease,” he said in a news conference. “In fact, here in Wisconsin, exactly the opposite is taking place.” 

The pandemic is worse now than it’s ever been before, he said. 

Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services at the county’s Office of Emergency Management, said there is very little good news to report. 

“We continue to see hospitalizations of COVID-positive patients rising sharply, without any apparent slowing or flattening of the curve,” he said. 

The county has more than 300 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, much higher than at any point in the pandemic, he said. Testing numbers are also higher than at any other point, he said.

600 empty chairs set out to represent Milwaukee County’s coronavirus deaths

Hundreds of empty, black folding chairs dotted MacArthur Square in Milwaukee on Tuesday, representing the nearly 600 people who have died from the coronavirus in the county.  

The temporary exhibit was set up and arranged by Citizen Action Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Service Area Workers, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and Souls to the Polls to reflect the cost paid by residents during the pandemic.  

Near the chairs, a table was set up with photos of two of those who’d died from the virus. A posterboard was available for people to write messages on, and people could also deposit private messages for families who have been affected by the virus.  

Visiting the site, Barrett said the chairs were a stark reminder “of what we’re living through right now.” 

“For the last seven months there has not been the ability to have a lot of funerals where hundreds of loved ones can come and pay tribute to their mothers, their fathers, their brothers and their sisters because of this pandemic,” Barrett said.

“Those families, and by extension this community, have not had the opportunity to grieve.”

Long lines at Milwaukee testing sites as demand surges

Also Tuesday, officials acknowledged long lines for COVID-19 testing at Miller Park a day earlier, while two other testing sites operated by the city also were at or near capacity. 

“Throughout the pandemic, there has been a high demand for COVID testing on Mondays, and yesterday was definitely no exception,” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said during a news conference.

The Miller Park testing site exceeded its 2,000-tests-per-day capacity by more than 300 tests Monday, Crowley said, and some people were turned away. 

Northwest Health Center, 7630 W. Mill Road, conducted 462 tests. 

Southside Health Center, 1639 S. 23rd St., conducted 340 tests, he said. 

“These numbers show that we’re seeing a surge in testing, and we understand that it’s frustrating to be turned away from a testing site,” Crowley said. “But please know we share your frustration, and staff at the testing sites are working very hard to ensure we’re able to provide tests to those who need them.”

Health officials are working to implement weekend hours, said Milwaukee Health Department Interim Commissioner Marlaina Jackson.

More information is available at milwaukee.gov/covidtesting, and other testing options can be found at TestUpMKE.com.

Barrett said testing at the three local sites will require additional state or federal funding to continue beyond the end of the year. 

Ahead of election, officials encourage safety precautions, early voting

The city’s new health order, which includes greater restrictions on public gatherings, will not affect voting or processing of ballots for next week’s election, she said. 

Weston said those who are planning to go to the polls on Tuesday should: 

  • Vote at times that are less likely to be busy, like mid-morning.
  • Come prepared with the necessary documents or identification.
  • Consider bringing a pen. 
  • Wear a mask.
  • Keep at least a six-foot distance from anyone else. 
  • Wash their hands before and after being inside polling locations.

He also encouraged the use of early in-person voting.

“Overall, please continue to be vigilant and to be cautious as we work through this spike in cases and hospitalizations in our community,” he said. “Use every layer of protection available.”

Ricardo Torres and Annysa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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