Wisconsin on Monday reported its lowest daily COVID-19 case count in four weeks, but the state continued to contend with strained hospitals and the consequences of a months-long surge in cases.
The state Department of Health Services on Monday reported 3,095 new cases and six deaths, bringing the death toll to 3,011.
Mondays typically turn out the lowest case counts of the week, as fewer tests are conducted and processed over the weekend. Monday’s count was the lowest since Oct. 26, also a Monday.
Jeff Pothof, an emergency physician and chief quality officer at UW Health, said the good news could be short-lived as Thanksgiving gatherings are likely to cause cases to spike.
“I don’t know how long that will last for, and we are all scared of Thanksgiving,” Pothof said. “But not seeing that number higher every day is a nice break.”
Cases have climbed for weeks in Wisconsin, repeatedly breaking records. Hospitalizations and deaths from the virus have surged as a result. More than 74,000 people had active COVID-19 infections Monday in the state.
Health officials are pleading that residents celebrate Thanksgiving with only the people in their households. The virus can spread easily at holiday gatherings, with people in close proximity indoors for hours on end, not wearing masks as they eat and drink.
Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin:See the latest numbers and trends
How to interpret COVID-19 data: What experts say about positive cases, deaths and hospitalizations
Hard-hit hospital in Eau Claire set up beds in ambulance bay
Hospitals across the state are at or near capacity and are facing severe staffing shortages as hundreds of health care workers are forced to quarantine at home after being exposed or infected in the community.
As of Monday, there were 1,999 people hospitalized with the virus, including 438 patients in intensive care units.
Hospitals in northwestern Wisconsin – the region hardest hit in the state – remain at close to capacity.
Mayo Clinic Health System’s hospital in Eau Claire set up four beds in a heated ambulance bay on Wednesday to handle overflow patients from its emergency department, said Pam White, the health system’s chief nursing officer for Northwest Wisconsin region. The hospital used some of those beds for several hours that day but hasn’t used then since.
Staffing remains a challenge.
“We are tired,” White said. “We are very tired.”
The health system has sent nurses from its hospital in Phoenix to help with staffing. It also has sent nurses on weekends from Rochester, Minn. And seven nurses who retired in the past two to three years, including a few who live out of state, returned to work to help during the pandemic.
Numbers dip after deadliest week of pandemic
Monday’s lower case numbers follow a week of high case counts and record-setting death tolls.
The seven-day average of new daily cases, a measure that smooths out anomalies and helps represent trends, was 5,859 Monday.
The seven-day case average is down from an all-time high set last Wednesday of more than 6,500, but it’s still eight times the seven-day average reported Sept. 1, just as the surge of cases was beginning in Wisconsin.
On Saturday, Wisconsin surpassed 3,000 deaths from the coronavirus, just three weeks after surpassing 2,000. The day capped the state’s deadliest week of the pandemic with 380 deaths.
But on Sunday, the state reported no new deaths for the first time since late September — excluding a day in October when the state’s data system was down for maintenance.
And Monday’s toll of six deaths is the lowest daily toll since early November.
Deaths aren’t always reported by state health officials the same day they occur, and daily death tolls tend to dip early in the week.
The average daily death toll over the last seven days was 52; two months ago, just as the surge in cases was beginning in Wisconsin, it was four.
A model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates Wisconsin could pass 5,000 coronavirus deaths before Christmas if the state continues on its path.
The average positivity rate was 29.3% Monday, the first time it has dipped below 30% since the end of October. The measure looks at first-time positive tests over the last seven days.
Group sues Dane County over limits on indoor gatherings
Also Monday, a gym and two Dane County residents sued public health officials to try to overturn a ban on gatherings that is meant to keep Thanksgiving events from worsening the pandemic.
The lawsuit, filed by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, argues the restrictions on family gatherings and sporting events are invalid because they were put in place by public health officials rather than the Dane County Board or Madison Common Council.
If the state Supreme Court agrees with those bringing the lawsuit, city and county officials across the state will have to vote on the finest details of their COVID-19 policies instead of leaving that work to health officials.
The Dane County Board and Common Council have given their combined public health department broad leeway to set such policies. The lawsuit contends elected officials can’t do that and must vote on specific restrictions before they can take effect.
The health department last week issued an order banning indoor gatherings of any size other than those with household members. Under that policy, extended family and loved ones aren’t able to get together inside for Thanksgiving.
The restrictions also apply to sports games and practices, group exercises, meetings, trainings, conferences and movies.
“COVID-19 should be taken seriously. But these decisions must be made by the local governing body,” WILL’s president, Rick Esenberg, said in a statement. “Banning private family gatherings just before Thanksgiving, while allowing Black Friday shopping, makes little sense.”
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said the legal advocacy group and others who have challenged emergency health orders are responsible for promoting skepticism of mitigation efforts, resulting in overwhelmed hospitals.
Karri Bartlett, chief of COVID-19 operations for Public Health Madison and Dane County, said in an interview last week the county’s biggest concern right now is hospitals becoming more overwhelmed after Thanksgiving gatherings take place.
“I do think the holidays are going to be big and bad because people want to be around family,” Bartlett said. “This is going to be tricky this next couple months.”
Patrick Marley and Molly Beck of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
We want to remember the lives of those who died from COVID-19. Email us at email@example.com with the subject line “COVID-19 remembrance” or fill out this form if you’d like to share a loved one’s story with the Journal Sentinel.