Health officials: Wisconsin COVID-19 ‘trend is going in the wrong direction’

    Road sign reads Save Lives Now Stay Home #COVID19
    SAVE LIVES NOW STAY HOME COVID19 DMS sign along I-95 in Baltimore, Maryland on Thursday evening,19 March 2020 by Elvert Barnes Photography (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    COVID-19 continues to spread in Wisconsin, and the only way to reverse that will be by redoubling efforts to avoid large gatherings and to follow strict hygiene practices, state health officials said Thursday.

    The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) reported 900 confirmed new cases of the illness caused by the virus on Thursday, and four new deaths. The number of new cases has been up by more than 500 per day for all but three of the last 14 days, DHS reports show.

    Stephanie Smiley
    Stephanie Smiley, Wisconsin Dept. of Health Services (YouTube screenshot)

    “These numbers from today, from the past week on even further back, tell us that we’re constantly seeing significant community spread,” said Stephanie Smiley, interim state health officer and administrator for the state Division of Public Health at a media briefing held by telephone and livestreamed on YouTube and Wisconsin Eye. “All seven of our Wisconsin regions that we monitor are considered to have high disease activity levels.”

    People in their 20s continue to be the leading age group for the illness, accounting for 1 in 4 cases since the state began tracking the virus early this year, DHS reports.

    Contact-tracing interviews with people who have been infected have found that 30% of 20- to 29-year-olds infected had attended “a gathering, a party or meeting with people outside of their household” in June, Smiley said.

    While some have questioned whether large protest gatherings in the last month might have also caused the disease to spread, Smiley said that fewer than 1% of people in contact-tracing interviews had reported attending a protest.

    “But a gathering doesn’t have to be one of those types of situations or even very large to be dangerous,” Smiley said. “We know that meeting up with friends for drinks or going to a birthday party — these types of activities definitely do spread COVID-19.”

    In order to return to the lower rates of infection the state experienced in March, April and early May, Wisconsin residents should  “take every step that you can to stop the virus,” Smiley said. “If you can stay home, please do so. Limit your trips to the essentials. Practice physical distancing, and wear a mask if you can safely do so. Wash your hands and also get tested if you have symptoms or if you’ve been exposed.”

    Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer with the Dept. of Health Services and UW Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine. (Photo: UW-Madison faculty)
    Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer with the Dept. of Health Services and UW Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine. (Photo: UW-Madison faculty)

    Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases, agreed that with both the number of cases among younger adults and the overall increase in cases, “the news is mostly bad … the trend is going in the wrong direction.”

    In addition, the majority of younger adults getting tested “are being tested because they’re symptomatic,” Westergaard said. Yet many people in that group who get COVID-19 have few or no symptoms. “So that might give us reason to worry that we’re actually not testing enough people” — and missing the mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic people who have the disease.

    In the face of bad news, both offered some more hopeful findings. Smiley focused on the degree to which local health authorities and health workers have continued to work in partnership with DHS to curb the virus responsible and protect more vulnerable people, including the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

    In addition, she said, deaths have continued to remain comparatively low, although Smiley cautioned that to recover “does not necessarily mean [being] without long term effects from this disease.”

    Westergaard says he has found it heartening to see a greater acceptance in the media and among community groups of wearing masks to help reduce the spread of the virus.

    “The best news, I think, personally in the past week is that the science continues to get stronger, that we have a very inexpensive and easy tool to reduce transmission,” Westergaard said. “And, number two, that people are starting to embrace science, and behaviors are changing on a larger scale.”

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.