Data Wonk

‘Bleak Winter’ Coming for Wisconsin

The numbers show COVID-19 exploding. True leadership is sorely needed.

By - Nov 4th, 2020 05:12 pm
The Wisconsin National Guard and Milwaukee Health Department staff a COVID-19 testing site at Midtown Center. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Wisconsin National Guard and Milwaukee Health Department staff a COVID-19 testing site at Midtown Center. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci warned that “we’re in for a whole lot of hurt. It’s not a good situation.” He went on to say, “all the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors. You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.”

Fauci’s comments directly contradicted President Donald Trumps insistence that the US is “rounding the turn” on COVID-19 and has been tamed. Trump was not pleased.

At campaign rallies the following day, Trump complained about the news media’s continued coverage of the virus. The crowd began chanting, “Fire Fauci! Fire Fauci!” Mr. Trump listened in silence for a few moments before remarking: “Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election. I appreciate the advice.”

Trump’s reaction, although not surprising, illustrates why the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus has been so ineffective. It is very hard to fight any sort of threat when one denies the facts about the threat. Wisconsin’s experience with COVID-19 illustrates that principle.

Instead of an effective response, such as one that Fauci and other experts would recognize, Trump relies on cranks, such as Scott Atlas who advocates letting  COVID-19 rip through the American population in the hopes of achieving “herd immunity” by infecting most of the population.

The next graph shows the seven-day average of new cases in Wisconsin since last March. Starting around the beginning of September, the number has exploded in Wisconsin. In recent weeks, Wisconsin has been third highest in the nation in cases per capita, topped by only North and South Dakota.

Per Capita New Daily COVID-19 Cases in Wisconsin

Per Capita New Daily COVID-19 Cases in Wisconsin

The next chart shows the total COVID-19 deaths per day in Wisconsin, both for individual days using a seven-day moving average. Compared to recent numbers, the deaths from last spring seem quite low, averaging 10 per day or fewer, compared to recent averages exceeding 40 per day.

Wisconsin’s late May and July peaks in cases were not followed by peaks in deaths. Several explanations were advanced for this. Perhaps, with experience, the medical system was better able to identify treatments that reduced fatalities. In addition, the population with the virus became younger, possibly reflecting decisions by the most vulnerable people to avoid situations likely to lead to infection.

Daily COVID-19 Deaths in Wisconsin

Daily COVID-19 Deaths in Wisconsin

As with deaths, previous new spikes in the number of cases failed to result in new hospitalizations. However, this pattern does not hold for the current spike in cases. As the graph below shows, patients have been hospitalized recently at an average rate between 160 and 180 per day in Wisconsin. The danger that parts of Wisconsin will soon run out of hospital and ICU beds and qualified staff is a very real one.

New Hospitalizations in Wisconsin

New Hospitalizations in Wisconsin

As the next graph shows, the percentage of recent positive tests has been rising. Generally, a rate of positive tests above a 10% threshold is taken as evidence that there are a substantial number of people with unidentified cases of COVID-19.

Percent of Wisconsin Tests Positive

Percent of Wisconsin Tests Positive

The coronavirus depends on people to transmit from one person to another. The average rate at which the virus is transmitted from an infected person to another is measured by rt. If rt equals one, each infected person will infect one other person on average. Below 1 and the infection will die out. Above one and it will spread. According to a model, Wisconsin’s rt equals 1.1, which means that 10 infected people will infect 11 others, on average.

Among the 50 states, Wisconsin’s rt of 1.1 actually puts it in the middle among all states. The rapid expansion rate reflects both the high incidence of COVID-19in the Wisconsin population and a moderately high transmittal rate.

Fauci’s comments were not specifically aimed at Wisconsin, but if anything, they apply especially to Wisconsin. As mentioned, Wisconsin has the third-highest daily rate of new cases of all the states. Why is Wisconsin faring so poorly? Here some possible factors:

  • The Democratic governor has been hamstrung by the Republican Legislature which has challenged at every turn his power to react to a public health emergency, without offering an alternative. At least as interpreted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the governor’s ability to declare an emergency was limited to one period of 60 days, unless the Legislature agreed to extend it, even if the emergency extended far beyond 60 days.
  • Wisconsin’s hyper-partisan Legislature reflects the Wisconsin gerrymander that has resulted in mostly “safe” Republican districts. These partisan districts are safe from challenges from Democratic candidates, but not from an attack from the right in the Republican primary. It is striking that the legislative leadership has refused to call the Legislature into session. Recently Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was quoted as saying “what we’re doing now as a state isn’t working.” Does that signify a willingness to explore more effective responses to the raging pandemic? One can hope.
  • A highly ideological state Supreme Court which regards the restrictions necessary to mitigate COVID-19 as threats to freedom.
  • Right-wing organizations such as the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and the Heartland Institute willing to fund court challenges to the restrictions needed to mitigate COVID-19.
  • President Trump’s insistence that the coronavirus is on the run, combined with his instinctive rejection of any facts that do not support his predetermined opinion.
  • Congress’ inability to agree on an extension of the CARES Act, resulting in a realistic fear among many small businesses that they will not survive the pandemic. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to convene the US Senate, except to rush through the Barrett appointment to the Supreme Court.
  • The very odd relationship between Trump and the Republican base, who feel obligated to do whatever Trump says, just because Trump says so. This loyalty even extends to risking their lives—and their friends and neighbors—by attending Trump’s rallies. A recent analysis by four Stanford economists of 18 Trump events concluded that “the rallies likely led to more than 700 deaths.”

The coronavirus is very dependent on humans to prosper and spread. Fortunately for it, and unfortunately for Wisconsinites, it has not suffered for a lack of human allies. At least until effective vaccines are available, Wisconsinites will sicken and die from the virus. True leadership could lessen those numbers.

More about the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Categories: Data Wonk, Health

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