MADISON – More than 20,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly 200 people died this week in Wisconsin — a five-day toll unthinkable just a few months ago.
The surge of coronavirus in Wisconsin is showing no signs of sputtering with 5,096 new cases reported Friday and 24 new deaths — the second time this week new infections have topped 5,000 in a single day.
The state is now on track to hit 100,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the month of October alone.
“Frankly, I’m surprised and disappointed that we’ve had such low success or have failed as much as we have to slow it,” Ryan Westergaard, state Department of Health Services’ chief medical officer, told reporters Friday.
“I say that because I think it’s important to understand there’s still time to turn this around. We know what to do.”
Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin:See the latest numbers and trends
But Westergaard acknowledged that without a “very strenuous effort to prevent” transmission of the highly contagious virus, that task is gigantic.
Wisconsin, with a population of fewer than 6 million, is experiencing one of the worst and sustained outbreaks in the country. At one point this week, the state’s new cases surpassed those reported in Illinois, a state with more than double the population of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s surge is higher than New York’s tragic spring surge, though antibody studies and death rates indicate that many cases there went unconfirmed because of a scarcity of tests.
The number of residents with cases serious enough to require hospitalization keeps increasing; more than 90 patients had been admitted since Thursday.
Wisconsin’s hospitals currently have 1,546 COVID-19 patients, including 350 who are in intensive care. A field hospital Evers opened in West Allis to provide relief for overwhelmed facilities now has seven patients.
But in the absence of government-imposed restrictions, the threat of the virus is not keeping people away from each other. Data pulled from Wisconsin residents’ cellphones in recent weeks show people are out and about near the rates seen before the virus began to spread in the state.
Evers urges public to heed restrictions
Gov. Tony Evers on Friday again urged the public to abide by restrictions he has been blocked by lawsuits from imposing. But he acknowledged simply asking people to wear a mask and stay away from each other isn’t working.
“Things that work elsewhere don’t seem to be working here because we are having difficulty with compliance on the very basic things,” Evers said. “We will continue to fight those issues and hopefully have requirements in place that people understand how important they are. Me shouting here once a week gets old hat for me, too, folks, but if we do the simple things we’ll be in a much better place.”
Evers said he is open to signing new legislation that supports basic interventions but was not specific. He also said he may try to go back to the Legislature’s rules committee to persuade lawmakers who have rejected such policies before to change their minds.
“Clearly we spend all of our time messing around with the courts and that’s time-consuming and it’s very expensive,” he said, referring to legal challenges to all of his health emergency orders. “Whatever we can do to convince people to do the right things, whether it’s situations like this with the governor yelling at people or if it’s legislation that shows the people of Wisconsin their representatives are behind the basics, I’m open to it.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, shifted his attitude toward the pandemic this week by calling for more testing and floated the idea of a second relief package from the state after previously maintaining the state Legislature should not have a role in the response to the pandemic beyond a relief package passed six months ago.
Evers said if the federal government doesn’t provide relief funding, he and lawmakers will need to find it.
“I’m not sure where it will come from, but we will need money from the state,” he said.
A warning from White House task force
A new report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force released Sunday told Wisconsin officials “mitigation measures should be implemented expeditiously to avoid falling behind the rapid spread.”
“We share the concern of the state leadership that the situation will continue to worsen with increased morbidity and mortality,” the report said. “Wisconsin’s ability to limit these increases depends on increased observation of social distancing mitigation measures by the community until cases decline.”
The report showed the surge in cases and inadequate compliance with mitigation measures has resulted in the rapid increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Limiting the “avoidable increases” depends on compliance with social distancing rules, the report said.
“As state and local leaders weigh how to most effectively mitigate increasing cases while maximizing economic activity, recommend continuing to emphasize that compliance with restrictions on public and private gathering sizes, especially indoors, will help limit the superspreader events that are critical to rapid epidemic spread,” the report said.
“This in turn will help to increase the level at which businesses can operate safely. State and local leaders should work intensely with business leaders and communities to ensure a clear and shared message.”
Instead, that’s happening in silos.
Evers and GOP legislative leaders Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald haven’t worked together on any plan. Evers asked Vos and Fitzgerald earlier this month to meet him with a plan Republicans could support to craft a statewide plan to combat the virus. He hasn’t received a response.
More than 20 lobbying organizations, Wisconsin’s professional sports teams, the Wisconsin Hospital Association, the University of Wisconsin System and the state business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce launched a public education campaign. But the governor’s administration is not part of it and legislative leaders have not promoted it on social media.
And the Tavern League of Wisconsin, which sued over Evers’ capacity limits, said bar owners would be willing to negotiate a limit on customers, but the Evers administration did not reach out before issuing an order setting it at 25% of capacity, a limit that makes it more expensive to be open than closed, the League says.
The worst month yet of the pandemic in Wisconsin coincides with the last weeks of an intense election season that Wisconsin could ultimately decide Tuesday.
President Donald Trump by Monday will have held nine large events, including rallies that draw thousands, since the pandemic began to spread in Wisconsin — five of which have been held in October while cases have surged here.
Republicans also continue to hold political events and fundraisers, including two that led to a number of state lawmakers and staff to become infected with the coronavirus.
Matt Piper of USA TODAY Network-Wisconsin contributed to this report.