“Virus ‘gonna virus.” That’s what Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter often says about the unpredicted twists and turns of Covid-19. That seems to fit Wisconsin. It’s undergoing a true surge in COVID-19 but the reasons are unclear.
Wisconsin hit another record number of patients in the hospital with COVID-19 on Tuesday, as reported by the Wisconsin State Journal, putting hospitals in part of the state at serious risk of overload. “The state reported 18 more deaths from the coronavirus Tuesday, for a total of 1,399, and 2,020 new cases, maintaining a surge in activity that started more than a month ago.” Eight of the nation’s 20 COVID-19 metro area hot spots are in Wisconsin, according to the New York Times.
That prompted Gov. Tony Evers to direct the state’s health department to issue a new statewide order limiting the size of crowds at places like bars and restaurants.
Will that work? What caused the upsurge?
Wisconsin had a comprehensive lockdown order in place until May 13 when it was struck down by its top court. But things went comparatively well thereafter. A study on the episode concluded that people’s behavior changed little. Social distancing continued voluntarily and Wisconsin continued to do better than most states for almost four months.
But hospitalizations surged in early September as you can see from the chart below:
Some of the surge came from students returning to the University of Wisconsin. However, the problem centers not there but mostly in the northeastern part of the state. Milwaukee, which has dense urban areas like those where infection rates have been higher, has not seen a surge. Same for all southeastern Wisconsin.
It’s also important to keep the long term record in mind. Wisconsin’s deaths per capita from the start of the pandemic remain very low, at 23 per 100,000. Illinois is three times worse at 71. The U.S. national rate is 66.
Everything has a cause, and we’ll probably have to wait to find out what’s responsible for the problem areas. In the meantime, here’s one highly unscientific piece of evidence: A friend in northeastern Wisconsin tells me people there have been jamming into bars and restaurants again – watching football there for hours as they like to do and even dancing in the evenings.
UPDATE 9/7/20: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot today said she knows the cause of Wisconsin’s surge in cases. “Wisconsin is what happens when you politicize public health,” she said. Referring to the clashes between Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Evers and Republicans, Lightfoot said, “Public health should never be politicized.” She added, “In a time of crisis as we are right now, in a global pandemic, the fact that those partisans put their party over public health is shameful.” She did not specify what the Republicans did that she disagrees with.