MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin health leaders sounded more alarms Wednesday about the rapidly spreading coronavirus, urging the public to take the threat seriously and for policy makers to come together and form a united front against the virus that shows no signs of abating.
The only way to stop the coronavirus pandemic from getting even worse in Wisconsin is to "triple down," individually and collectively, on public health measures, said Dr. Mark Kaufman, chief medical officer for the Wisconsin Hospital Association, at a virtual meeting of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
"We really know what works, we just need to do it and we all need to do it," he said.
It's a message that's taken on greater urgency as Wisconsin once again set records for new daily positive cases, deaths and hospitalizations on Tuesday. The surge, which began in September, came as the U.S. hit a record number of coronavirus hospitalizations Tuesday and surpassed 1 million new confirmed cases in just the first 10 days of November.
We must all wear masks, keep a social distance, avoid gathering particularly indoors, and frequently wash our hands, Kaufman said. Public health leaders have been delivering the same message since the pandemic began nine months ago, and Gov. Tony Evers, in an unusual prime-time speech Tuesday, urged Wisconsin residents to work together to fight the virus.
Wisconsin is near a point where hospitals are so overwhelmed they will not be able to save the lives of people who come in to be treated, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the state's chief medical officer, during a separate Wisconsin Health News panel Wednesday.
"We're close to a tipping point where this could get much worse quickly," Westergaard said. "And that tipping point is where we stop being able to save everyone who gets severely ill."
Eric Borgerding, president of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, said hospitals were stressed all across the state, with not enough staff to deal with the rising number of patients.
The state has set a new record for daily hospitalizations every day since Nov. 2, hitting 2,070 COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals on Tuesday.
Public health departments are overwhelmed and unable to do adequate contact tracing, said Kirsten Johnson, director of the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department in suburban Milwaukee.
"We can't get our arms around this," she said.
There were more than 7,000 new positive cases on Wednesday, the third time in five days that cases have topped 7,000. The seven-day average of new cases neared 6,000, which was six times higher than it was two months ago. There were an additional 62 deaths reported Wednesday, bringing the total to 2,457.
Wisconsin is doing much worse than its peers and is not flattening the curve, Kaufman said.
"We need to triple down on following public health measures we know will work and if we do that, we will slow the pandemic," Kaufman said. "And if we don't do that, it will continue to get worse."
One of the main reasons Wisconsin is behind, he and those on the Wisconsin Health News panel said, is inconsistent messaging from leaders. Tim Sheehy, the president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said he was "perplexed" with the lack of consistency in messaging and with people not acting with concern over the rising case numbers.
He and the other health leaders all said the consistency of messaging was vital to getting the virus under control.
Evers' attempts to curtail the virus in Wisconsin have been met with resistance from Republicans and the state's business community. His "safer at home" order issued in March was challenged by Republican lawmakers and ultimately struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. His statewide mask mandate, in place since August, is being fought by lawmakers and a conservative law firm. The state Supreme Court scheduled arguments on that Monday.
A state appeals court last week struck down Evers' attempt to limit how many people can gather at bars, restaurants and other places indoors. That was initially fought by the Tavern League of Wisconsin.
Evers and the Republican-controlled Legislature have also not agreed on what steps to take to tackle the virus. The Legislature has not met since April and Evers and GOP leaders rarely talk. Evers said Tuesday that he planned to introduce a package of legislation to address the virus, but did not detail what they would include.
Evers' message calling for unity and vigilance to combat the virus did not resonate with Republican state Sen. Duey Stroebel, of Cedarburg.
"The governor's speech last night was just a lot of fear mongering in a year in which people have been through so much," Stroebel said in a statement. "Wisconsin doesn't need to run and hide, we need to get to work building strong communities and revitalizing our economy while abiding by common-sense precautions."
Despite the worsening situation, the health care leaders all expressed hope about the availability of a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year. However, they also cautioned that it will take months before a vaccine is widely available and people can't let their guard down while waiting.