Wisconsin health officials were hoping for the best but bracing for the worst Tuesday as the state’s COVID-19 death count broke another record two days before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
After daily tallies on Sunday and Monday provided a false hope for some that the state was flattening the curve, Tuesday’s numbers were a bracing reminder that the state has not turned the corner on one of the worst outbreaks in the nation.
“The easiest answer to the question, ‘Are we flattening the curve?’ is no,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state Department of Health Services, at a press briefing on Tuesday. “The curve is very, very elevated. All communities have high disease activity.”
It was unclear why cases and deaths reported over the past two days were relatively low. Tuesday saw 104 deaths and 6,202 new cases after 3,507 cases and no deaths on Sunday and 3,095 cases and six deaths on Monday. Six days ago the state saw a record 7,989 cases, and the day before that 92 deaths were attributed to the virus.
“We encourage people to look at multiple data points, seven-day averages,” said Andrea Palm, secretary-designee of the Department of Health Services. “Whether it’s 104 today and that’s spread over the last three days or the last 24 hours, it’s 104 deaths that were preventable.”
Despite the two-day dip, the seven-day average for cases stands at 5,732, down from a record 6,563 last Wednesday, but three times the average two months ago. The seven-day average for deaths is 53, only one down from a record 54 set on Friday.
Westergaard expressed hope that the lower numbers could be an indication that the curve was hitting a plateau, but health officials in Wisconsin and across the nation fear the Thanksgiving holiday threatens to usher in a new and unprecedented surge. If that happens, it will be consistent with spikes seen after holidays like Easter, July 4 and Labor Day, but on a much larger scale.
According to local and state officials, contact tracers have found that gatherings have contributed a significant portion of the spread.
Gov. Tony Evers said the message to stay home on Thanksgiving, wear masks and social distance have been taken up by officials in both parties, public health experts and local governments. He was optimistic that the message is getting through.
"I think they will cooperate with our suggestions," he said. "If you're not following that advice and those recommendations, you're helping to have more people die."
The Centers for Disease Control last week issued guidelines urging people to stay home for the holidays to prevent the worsening spread of the virus. Public Health Madison & Dane County issued an order last week banning indoor gatherings with anyone outside of one’s immediate household. That order is currently being challenged in court by a conservative legal advocacy group.
Some travelers have reported that they intend to gather with family members after getting tested, a strategy not recommended by state officials.
“You could very well test negative one day and spread the virus to your family the next day,” Evers said. “So if you’re planning to spend Thanksgiving with people outside of your household, we urge you to seriously reconsider.”
Hospital capacity, Palm said, continues to be “almost maxed out.”
The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported 1,986 COVID-19 patients on Tuesday, down from a record, 2,277 a week ago. ICU patients numbered 436, 20 fewer than last week’s record number. But hospitals have been hard-hit by staff shortages as health care workers either tested positive for the disease or are quarantining because they’ve been exposed to someone who has.
“Our hospitals and our front-line health care workers have been very vocal in recent weeks about the strain that they are feeling,” she said. “We need to take their words seriously. We need to hear them, and we need to stay home.”
State efforts to address the shortage have included regulatory measures to loosen license requirements and open up beds in skilled nursing facilities. The state has also hired a staffing firm to bring workers from out of state.
“We are competing with states all around this country for qualified health care providers,” Palm said.
Evers said that after months of inaction, his staff and staffers for Republican legislative leaders met to see if common ground could be found for COVID-19 relief legislation. Last week Evers met with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and newly elected Senate Majority Leader Scott LeMahieu to set up the meeting.
Evers last week proposed a $541 million legislative package that included a temporary ban on evictions and foreclosures and a continuation of lifting the weeklong wait for unemployment benefits. But those measure received a cool reception from GOP leaders. Republicans have also pushed back against efforts to compel behaviors, like mask wearing and business capacity limits, that are seen as the most effective means for slowing the spread.
Evers said he hadn’t been briefed on the meeting, but he plans in coming days to meet with legislative leaders.
"We agreed that subsequent to that meeting today we would meet sometime next week to discuss if there is a path forward,” he said. “I hope there is.”
One area of agreement could be on funds for testing and contact tracing. Vos said last week he’d support those efforts.
But time is getting short. The federal funding that enables the state’s current level of testing and tracing, as well as support for businesses and individuals, ends at the end of the year. The state has spent nearly all of a $2 billion injection from the Federal CARES Act, and there’s been little talk in Washington of a new relief bill.
“That means our testing efforts, our contact tracing and our support for folks across our state will be affected if we don’t get additional federal resources,” Evers said. “We need urgent action from Congress now.”