How pandemic fatigue and polarization led to Wisconsin’s massive Covid-19 outbreak

Wisconsin’s coronavirus cases have skyrocketed. Here’s why.

By German Lopez
October 23, 2020

The coronavirus epidemic in Wisconsin is so bad that, earlier this month, the state opened field hospitals to take on a wave of cases and deaths that officials feared would overwhelm the health care system.

The US has one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the world, and Wisconsin has one of the worst outbreaks within the US. Only the Dakotas and Montana have higher rates of daily new cases. Wisconsin’s outbreak also shows no signs of abating: Since the beginning of October, the seven-day average of daily new coronavirus cases has risen by almost 40 percent. Covid-19 deaths have increased by more than 95 percent over the month.

Wisconsin is the most populous state ranked in the top five for Covid-19 cases. And it’s likely the most important politically — Donald Trump’s win in the state helped cement his Electoral College victory in 2016.

In some ways, the story of Wisconsin’s recent surge is similar to other surges across the country: Cases gradually rose after restrictions were loosened in May, then skyrocketed as the public eased up — gathering for Labor Day, going back to bars and indoor dining, and returning to college campuses.

“It’s a combination of a lot of things that have occurred at the same time,” Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin Madison, told me. “It was a perfect storm.”

But what makes Wisconsin unique is the role political polarization has played. It’s not just that its voters are divided enough to make Wisconsin a swing state in presidential elections. The state government is also divided, and that’s had clear consequences: Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has repeatedly tried to enact new restrictions and policies to combat Covid-19, only to have them threatened or overturned by Republican lawmakers…

Wisconsin has to get serious on the crisis to turn things around

As grim as things are in Wisconsin today, the truth is that Covid-19 isn’t unstoppable. The solutions are the same things experts have now been repeating for months throughout the pandemic: More testing and contact tracing to isolate people who are infected, get their close contacts to quarantine, and deploy broader restrictions as necessary. More masking. More careful, phased reopenings. More social distancing.

This is what’s worked in other countries, from Germany to South Korea to New Zealand, to contain outbreaks. It’s what studies support: As a review of the research published in The Lancet found, “evidence shows that physical distancing of more than 1 m is highly effective and that face masks are associated with protection, even in non-health-care settings.”

It’s also what’s worked in the US. After suffering huge outbreaks in the spring, states like New York managed to suppress the coronavirus with such policies. Cities, such as San Francisco, have avoided bad outbreaks entirely with similar efforts. (The federal government would ideally be in charge of all of this, but Trump has by and large punted the pandemic down to the states to resolve.)

But Wisconsin, its leaders, and its population have to take these measures seriously.

And, crucially, they have to keep at it: Until there’s a vaccine or similarly effective treatment, the coronavirus will remain a constant threat. “There’s only so much you can do to contain this if there isn’t a coherent, uniform response,” Simanek said…

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