‘No way to sugarcoat it’: Records shattered for COVID-19 cases, deaths

Evers, DHS officials urge state to stay home voluntarily to curb rapidly spreading coronavirus

Gov. Tony Evers
Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a media briefing about the spread of COVID-19. (Screen shot from WisconsinEye)

Stay home.

Stick to your immediate family or household.

Keep your circles to five or fewer people — total.

Restrict your shopping to once a week or less. Focus on the essentials.

In short: Do what you did between March 25 and May 13 — if you followed the Safer at Home order that was in place then. If you didn’t then, do it now anyway.

And do it because it will save lives. Not because there’s a state health order, because there isn’t one.

That was the message Tuesday as Wisconsin smashed through previous records to set all-time daily highs for COVID-19 infections, and also deaths.

Source: Courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS)

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday, speaking at a regularly scheduled pandemic media briefing put on by the state Department of Health Services (DHS). “We are facing an urgent crisis, and there is an imminent risk to you, your family members, your friends or neighbors and the people you care about.”

Forget the notion that the virus is “only happening to other people in other places,” the governor said. “This virus is here and it’s spreading all around us.”

On Tuesday, DHS logged 5,262 new confirmed coronavirus infections, bringing the total number of people who have tested positive in the state to 206,311. There were 64 new deaths, bringing Wisconsin’s total fatalities to 1,852.

“This increase in cases and our increase in deaths today are the largest single-day increases we have seen throughout the course of this pandemic,” said Andrea Palm, DHS secretary-designee. “We must take significant and collective action.”

Palm reiterated what Evers had said moments before in the briefing, and what each of them would say again during the hour spent fielding questions from reporters:

“We all need to stay home. Do not interact with people that you do not live with. Go out for the essentials: groceries, the pharmacy, your job if you cannot work from home — but cancel travel and social gatherings.”

Everyone should wear a mask, she said — because the wearer might have the virus and not know it, so the mask helps reduce the chance they will spread it to others.

Andrea Palm, Wisconsin Dept. of Health Services
Andrea Palm, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). (Screen capture)

“Your mask protects me and my mask protects you,” Palm continued. “We need to practice physical distancing, stay six feet apart, even when we’re wearing our masks. And we need to wash our hands frequently.”

The virus remains extraordinarily contagious, with infections multiplying rapidly as it spreads in communities, observed Palm and Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer at the DHS bureau of communicable disease. The number of cases has doubled from 100,000 — which took more than six months to reach — to more than 200,000 in 36 days.

“In an environment where we still think the large majority of people have not been exposed to the virus,  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,” Westergaard said.

Referring to the Safer at Home order, Palm said: “We have to go back to the things that we were doing in that early spring time frame, if we’re going to get to a place where our case growth and our escalation is not that intense.”

There were some brief, hopeful messages in Tuesday’s news. 

The state’s recent receipt of 600,000 new antigen tests — which are  faster, although somewhat less accurate, in detecting a coronavirus infection — and another batch of tests on the way will help in testing nursing home and hospital employees. That may help in managing staffing shortages when employees are exposed, Palm said.

And there might even be a positive glimmer in the fact that the flood of cases has forced health departments to streamline contact tracing.

Ryan Westergaard with mask
Dr. Ryan Westergaard (Screen capture from Youtube)

“The standard that we strive for is that every individual who tests positive gets contacted and interviewed by a local health department,” Westergaard said. “We still want to do that.”

Now, however, those people with the positive test are being asked to reach out themselves to the people they’ve exposed. 

“The idea that we could crowdsource” that element of the tracing process offers an opportunity for broader public education, he added. “We were sort of forced into this in the staffing crisis, but I could see it being a very potentially positive thing, if we can get some best practices and disseminate the right education and do it in a coordinated way. So I’m actually really optimistic and grateful for health departments that are out leading this.”

Another positive development, Westergaard observed, is that flu cases have been virtually non-existent so far this year. In the same vein, he said, where health practitioners are able to test for both the coronavirus and influenza, “it’s going to make a lot of sense.” 

He also pointed to the success that the University of Wisconsin-Madison has had in reining in the outbreak earlier this fall — partly through frequent and repeated testing, but also through aggressive quarantine and isolation.

“The good news with that is that we don’t need to test the whole population,” Westergaard said. “For the strategy that was effective on the campus to be effective statewide, we really need to be serious [that] every single case that you know of gets isolated — effectively all exposed people get tested and quarantined. And the other thing that must be said was really successful on our campuses is close to 100% face coverings in public. I don’t think that can be overstated.”

Public health measures

As of Tuesday, the state has only one functioning public health mandate against the disease, the most recent mask requirement, which took effect in late September and will run through late November, if it’s not overturned in court. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), which is suing to block both the mandate and the right of the governor to declare new health emergencies because of the pandemic, has asked the lower court to issue a summary judgment ruling on the suit, which would speed up the appeals process.

But the administration’s other order — limiting indoor gatherings to 25% of building or room capacity, including at bars and restaurants — has for a second time been suspended pending a state appeals court ruling on the order’s legality. There’s no timetable for the decision, although the governor’s chief lawyer said Tuesday he hoped it would be “prompt” after briefings are completed by the end of the week.

With that order off-again, on-again and off-again, however, “it really has not been allowed to work,” Palm said. “The broader point remains that people should stay home as much as possible — order or no order, enforceable or not enforceable. It’s the safest and best thing we can do to stop the spread of this disease” — as well as to protect healthcare workers and reduce strain on the public health system, including overwhelmed contact tracers.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee City Health Department on Monday tightened up the city’s public gathering limits, including for bars and restaurants, to 10 people indoors plus employees or even fewer for smaller venues. The new rules take effect on Thursday.

Evers, however, gave no indication about plans to seek new rules, demurring when a reporter asked if he would impose a new statewide shelter-in-place order if the Legislature flipped to Democratic control and authorized it.

“We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves here,” the governor said. “We have to … do everything we can around mitigation. That’s why we’re calling on people to be safer at home. And hopefully that can be amplified by Republicans and Democrats and others all across the state.”

After emphasizing the need for “a consistent message,” Evers added: “It is important that leaders step up and say the obvious: We need to stay safer at home if we want to prevent more deaths.”