Health Care

Wisconsin COVID-19 cases climb ahead of Election Day

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Just two weeks before Election Day, Wisconsin, a key battleground state, is facing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country. 

Hospitalizations have more than tripled in the past month, according to the COVID Tracking Project, and the state has set up a field hospital as Gov. Tony Evers (D) warns the hospital system is “beginning to become overwhelmed.”

Wisconsin is recording about 3,000 new cases per day, a figure that is still climbing. It’s more new cases per capita than any state except North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, which are all much more sparsely populated, according to data from the Covid Exit Strategy tracking project.

The worrying outbreak comes as Wisconsin Republicans have repeatedly sued to block moves from Evers aimed at fighting the virus. A court overturned the governor’s stay-at-home order in May. GOP legislative leaders also backed a lawsuit against Evers’s statewide mask mandate, which a judge upheld this month. 

President Trump held a rally in Janesville, Wis., on Saturday, one in a series of campaign events packing together large crowds, with many people not wearing masks.

“I wish you had a Republican governor because frankly you’ve got to open your state up,” Trump told the crowd. 

Democrats are using this Republican resistance to virus-fighting measures to argue Republicans are not taking the pandemic seriously.

“The COVID outbreak is worse because of actions of Republicans in our state,” said Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “I would give my right arm to not have the pandemic ripping through the state, but the fact that Republicans are accelerating the infection rate … is backfiring on them politically.”

The coronavirus was the top issue for Wisconsin residents in a University of Wisconsin poll last month: 34 percent said the virus was the most important issue facing the country, compared to 19 percent who said it was the economy, in second place. A CBS News poll this month found 53 percent of Wisconsin likely voters said Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would do a better job handling the coronavirus, compared to 34 percent who said Trump would.    

Trump in recent days has escalated attacks on his administration’s own top infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci, calling him a “disaster,” and slammed Biden for wanting to “listen to the scientists,” something that Biden happily agrees is true.   

But Democrats are still haunted by Wisconsin after Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss there in 2016 despite polls showng her leading by about 6 points ahead of Election Day. Polls show a similarly sized lead for Biden in the state today. 

“I do think the pandemic is working against Trump having success in Wisconsin,” said Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin. 

“Early on it was kind of an urban problem,” he added. “Today the outbreak is mostly in the northeast part of the state, which is more rural and small town. … When it’s happening in those communities, it can’t just be seen as an urban problem or a problem of college students.”

Eric Borgerding, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, said hospitals in some parts of the state are at capacity, and he is worried that the percentage of tests coming back positive keeps climbing even higher. “I’m more concerned about the next couple weeks,” he said. 

He pointed to “COVID fatigue,” people simply getting tired of taking precautions, as a major driver of the outbreak, but he also said changing restrictions had left people confused as to what the rules are. 

“It’s hard to know where those stand because they’re on, they’re off,” he said of restrictions. 

The changing restrictions are in part a result of fighting between the GOP legislature and Democratic governor. Last week, a court temporarily paused Evers’s new 25 percent capacity limits on bars, restaurants and other businesses after a trade group representing bars sued. A judge allowed the order to go forward this week. 

Nasia Safdar, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Wisconsin, said 25 percent capacity limits are “certainly better” than no restrictions, but she thinks “even that seems like it might need to be scaled back.”

She also said it might have been beneficial for Evers to have acted sooner in imposing the capacity limits, which he announced in early October.

“The sooner you implement mitigation measures, the more effective they are,” she said. 

Evers, for his part, has launched an ad attacking GOP state legislative leaders and Trump over the virus. “Lawsuits and gridlock. Republicans are playing politics with our pandemic response,” the ad states.  

Republican state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald responded to the ad by saying Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are using the pandemic for political gain and holding up an aid package in Congress until after the election. 

“Inaction from D.C. Democrats is clearly a political calculation intended to prevent President Trump from delivering a win for swing states on the eve of the presidential election,” Fitzgerald said. 

Safdar, of the University of Wisconsin, said the university’s hospitals in Madison are filling up. “Is every last bed filled at this point? No. But we’re getting there,” she said. 

The supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) has improved since the early days of the pandemic, she said, but health workers are still reusing equipment. “As long as we are still reusing PPE it’s a bit hard to say there’s enough,” she said. 

Wikler, of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said Democrats there are not doing in-person door-knocking, and are instead focusing on phone banking and other safer methods to contact voters. 

He said he thinks the party will be rewarded for taking precautions, in contrast to Trump holding a “super-spreader in-person rally” in the state.

“Their message is everything will be fine if we just pretend the virus isn’t here,” he said.


Tags Anthony Fauci Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Tony Evers

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