Milwaukee and Madison are no longer Wisconsin’s coronavirus hotspots.
When state balloons erupted into one of the country’s worst, the rise in cases and hospitalizations in northeastern Wisconsin is unlike anything the region has experienced since the pandemic began.
Hospitals in the Green Bay and Fox Valley area are close to capacity, and local resources are strained as cases increase almost exponentially. While growth has slowed among college-aged people, this gain has been lost to rapid increases among other age groups.
“We can not blame it all on university campuses,” said Jeff Pothof, Quality Manager at the University of Wisconsin Health.
Pothof believes the early September rise among youth and the eruptions on University of Wisconsin campuses may have given people in other parts of the state a false sense of security.
“People started thinking that ‘as long as I’m not in a college town and I’m not a college student, things’s fine,” he said.
Young people in college towns continue to report major cases, but the outbreak has spread across campus communities, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis.
Two weeks ago, people aged 10 to 29 accounted for nearly half of new cases in the state. But last week, they accounted for just over a third.
And that age group actually reported fewer cases last week than the week before, while middle-aged adults experienced 45% to 55% more cases week over week.
On Monday, the State Department of Health Services reported 1,726 new cases and 6,159 negative tests for a positivity rate of 21.9%.
The average daily number of new cases in the last seven days is 2,155. On March 25, when the Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order went into effect, Wisconsin reported 192 new cases.
Testing is up compared to spring – the state now regularly tests more than 10,000 people a day compared to about 1,500 a day at the end of March – but the percentage of positive tests rarely exceeded 10% at the time.
Positivity has risen steadily since the beginning of September, averaging 18.2% over the last seven days.
The state also reported two deaths, bringing the total to 1,283.
It all comes as President Donald Trump plans to hold demonstrations Saturday at airports in Green Bay and La Crosse – an area experiencing the second-highest rate of infection in the country, according to an analysis by the New York Times. The Green Bay area has the sixth highest rate.
Trump’s airport meetings around the country have been marked by a bit of social distance or masking.
The eruption in the Green Bay, Appleton and Oshkosh areas is driven by large gatherings such as weddings and parties as well as different levels of mask-wearing, local health authorities said.
Wisconsin residents may have “COVID fatigue,” tired of staying home and choosing to attend events and socialize as usual, health officials said.
“It’s not time to throw in the towel and say, ‘What the hell, I just have to live my life,'” said Chris Woleske, CEO of Bellin Health.
Pothof said a few large gatherings could spread the virus to hundreds of people.
Even those living in small towns are not immune to the virus, he said – rural, northern Kewaunee and Shawano counties report the highest incidence in the state, several times greater than Milwaukee.
“The biggest thing that needs to change is our behavior,” Pothof said. “We’re really stuck with … the same tools we’ve had since March, which is masking, social distance, good hygiene.”
Much of the Midwest is experiencing an increase in cases as Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota join Wisconsin in excessive case growth.
In recent days, Wisconsin has reported higher daily counts than New York State, which is three times as populous and has seen about 800 to 900 new cases a day. Its degree of positivity is approx. 1%.
And Florida, which has been in focus in recent months for widespread outbreaks, reports an average positivity rate of just under 5%.
College campuses an early explanation for the rise
Cases in Wisconsin have been rising since early September, when colleges brought students back to campus, believed to be an early explanation for the wave.
UW-Madison stopped personal classes one week during the semester after more than 1,000 students became infected, and other schools – including UW-La Crosse, UW-Eau Claire and Marquette University – have quarantined dormitories in hopes of preventing the virus spread further.
But campuses are no longer the only hotspots.
For several weeks, Fox Valley and the Northeastern Wisconsin community have been compiling records and filling hospitals – the Appleton, Green Bay and Oshkosh-Neenah area are all among the top 10 subway areas in the country where the eruptions are worst, according to the New York Times.
Fox Valley is at a “critical burden” level of infection, Winnebago County health officials said. The county reports 574 cases per. 100,000 inhabitants. By comparison, Milwaukee County reports a speed of 182.
And the growth is fast. In Winnebago County, the 778 cases reported last week were more than double the week before and more than five times the cases three weeks ago, according to local health officials.
Winnebago County last Thursday recorded 194 new cases in a single day, the highest number since the pandemic began. The city of Appleton has set a new record for weekly case counts for the fifth week in a row, reporting 340 cases from September 21 to Saturday.
And Brown County reported Friday that nearly 30% of tests were returned positive.
Hospitals, contact trackers overwhelmed
Area hospitals have started sounding the alarm. At a news conference Friday, Woleske said COVID patients occupy three-quarters of Bellin Hospital’s ICU beds and two-thirds of the medical unit beds – about double the number two weeks before.
In the past week, Bellin’s emergency room was so overwhelmed that workers had to care for patients on gurneys in the hallway.
Coronavirus admissions to Fox Valley are more than five times as high as a month ago. ThedaCare, which throughout the pandemic has been able to house all coronavirus patients at Appleton Hospital, now plans to direct patients to Neenah and its critical-access hospitals in Berlin, Shawano and Waupaca.
“If we do not change anything … we are back to the first thing we were back in February and March, and in fact probably even worse off than at that time,” CEO Imran Andrabi told the Appleton Post Crescent. .
Hospitals in the spring made plans to expand their capacity to treat coronavirus patients, but since then, many have restarted non-emergency procedures, exacerbating the space problem that some hospitals now face, Pothof said.
If trends continue, the state’s health care system will face its utmost capacity, he said.
“None of these plans are infinite. At some point, they all have an end point,” he said. “And if you get to those endpoints, that’s when bad things start happening to patients.”
And as things accelerate, one of the most important tools to stop the spread becomes more difficult to perform.
Several health departments across the state have reported that contact trackers tasked with reaching infected people and identifying and tracking their close contacts have been overwhelmed by the barring of new cases to work through.
“Our goal is to reach all confirmed cases within 24 hours of being reported to the health department, but due to the current increase in cases, we are days behind that goal,” the Winnebago County Health Department wrote in a Thursday release.
Sporers in Portage County, Outagamie County and Marathon County have also reported that they could not keep up.
The key to reversing the current outbreak is to make the public understand the severity of the virus and its widespread effect, Pothof said.
“The longer we continue, the gravity of these numbers and the historical nature of what we are going through starts to get a little lost,” he said, “and people start to return to their normal behavior, which unfortunately allows continued spread and escalation (of the virus). “
Haley BeMiller of the Green Bay Press-Gazette contributed to this report.
Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.
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