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'It will get worse before it gets better': Wisconsin shatters previous daily records

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Wisconsin reported more than 3,700 new coronavirus cases Thursday, shattering previous daily records as the state's health crisis continued to soar to new heights unimpeded.

The state Department of Health Services reported 3,747 new cases, nearly triple the number reported just one month ago. The seven-day average was the highest ever, at 2,927.

Deaths due to the virus rose by 17, bringing the death toll to 1,553.

There were 1,043 people hospitalized with the coronavirus in the state, including 264 people in intensive care units. Both numbers were all-time highs.

Gov. Tony Evers expressed his frustration with residents who, he said, have not taken the ballooning outbreak seriously.

"We can prevent deaths," Evers said in a conference call.

"I don't know how anyone in the state of Wisconsin can feel comfortable about saying, 'What the hell, I don't care about preventing deaths.' That is unimaginable to me," he said.

'It will get worse before it gets better': Hospitalizations, deaths likely to continue surging

Cases in Wisconsin began rising in early September as students returned to schools and universities. Since then, the virus has spread widely across the state and all age groups are seeing surging numbers, according to Journal Sentinel data.

Health officials have raised alarms about the concerning increase in hospitalizations and deaths in recent weeks — a direct result of the early-September rise in cases, when they averaged around 700 per day.

Cases have continued their meteoric rise unfettered since September, the daily average  more than quadrupling in six weeks, so it's likely that hospitalization and death numbers will become even more dire in coming weeks.

"It is why we say it will get worse before it gets better," state Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said.

"We need to do all that we can right now to break that transmission, to stop the spread, but it will take time before we see the fruits of that labor in reduced hospitalizations and reduced community spread," she said.

As it stands, hospitals across the state are at or near capacity. The number of coronavirus patients has tripled in the last month. Intensive care units at some hospitals are more than 90% full, according to Palm. Hospitals in every region of the state are reporting current or imminent staffing shortages.

The state opened the State Fair Park field hospital in West Allis due to the likelihood that the crisis will worsen in coming weeks, Palm said.

The field hospital, known as an alternate care facility, is intended to free up bed space at overwhelmed hospitals and treat patients who need a lower level of hospital care.

It opened Wednesday but had not yet accepted patients as of Thursday morning, Palm said. Health officials were talking with hospitals to transfer patients there by the next day, she said.

Wisconsin's crisis is among nation's worst, task force has reason for 'extreme concern'

Wisconsin's crisis is one of the worst in the country. The state ranked the third-highest in total number of new cases over the last week behind only Texas and California — states with populations several times larger — according to New York Times data.

Wisconsin is also among the top five in the Times' ranking of new cases on a population-adjusted basis.

A new White House Coronavirus Task Force report paints a chilling picture of Wisconsin's crisis, saying "there is extreme concern" for the state's near future.

"We share the concern of the state health officials that the current situation can continue to worsen," the report's authors wrote.

For the state to limit further increases in hospitalizations and deaths, the authors said it will take "increased observation of social-distancing mitigation measures by the community until cases decline.

"Lack of compliance with these measures will lead to preventable deaths," they wrote. 

State leaders should work "intensely" with communities to ensure a "clear and shared" message, the report notes — something that has long been a problem for the Badger State, as top Republican lawmakers continue to block efforts by Evers, a Democrat, to slow spread, and some in the party have downplayed the seriousness of the virus. 

Evers and Palm urged residents to avoid gatherings with people outside their immediate families. The virus can spread easily between people without symptoms.

It has become more difficult to pinpoint exact events where people were infected because the virus has become prevalent nearly everywhere, Palm said.

The Winnebago County Health Department, in the hard-hit Fox Valley, echoed that message in a statement Thursday.

"We have uncontrolled spread that is threatening all aspects of community life," it said.

"Assume that every public place you are in has a risk of exposure to you. … Assume household members that are active outside of the home can infect you."

More than 1.7 million people have been tested statewide for the virus. Of the 162,325 Wisconsinites who have tested positive:

  • 80.7%, or 127,576, have "recovered" by DHS standards, meaning there is documented proof their symptoms have resolved or it's been 30 days since their diagnosis.

  • 20.4%, or 33,160, are considered "active," meaning they aren't recovered and haven't died.

Milwaukee 'backtracking' as outbreak intensifies in southeast Wisconsin

On Thursday, health and elected leaders in Milwaukee County raised concerns about the virus’ spread and said local governments will face huge challenges without additional federal funding to help address the pandemic. 

Milwaukee is seeing some “backtracking” in the key indicators that the city looks at each week, Mayor Tom Barrett said during a virtual news conference. 

The city and county use red, yellow and green to indicate worst to best on the five key indicators — cases, testing, care, safety and tracing. 

On Thursday, the city’s dashboard showed cases and testing were red while safety and tracing were yellow. Care was the only indicator that remained green. 

“What that means is, essentially, that we’re seeing a much higher percentage of people, unfortunately, who are testing positive for COVID-19,” Barrett said. “This is a real, real concern.”

He also pointed to a statistic he called “troubling”: On Sept. 18, 3.8% of hospital beds in the county were in use by COVID-19 patients. That figure has now climbed to 9.4%. 

“So we have seen well over a 2½ times increase in the number of COVID-19 patients just in one month in Milwaukee County hospitals,” he said.

As of Thursday, the county’s COVID-19 dashboard reflected nearly 34,000 cases and 448 deaths.

The county on Tuesday reached a seven-day average of 341 new cases per day — a high since the pandemic began.

The county’s key indicator for cases is now red, largely because of a significant increase in cases over the last two weeks, said Darren Rausch, health director at the Greenfield Health Department. 

Leaders also urged the federal government to provide more funding for local governments contending with the pandemic.

“Local governments in Wisconsin, including counties and municipalities, are the ones administering and providing critical public health functions to our residents in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said. 

Local governments didn’t budget for a pandemic and don’t have the resources to continue funding the increased services residents need, he said.

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