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Wisconsin Reaches Another Pandemic Low Point
And now we’re left with a series of no-win debates.
By several measures, Wisconsin is experiencing its worst stretch of the pandemic right now.
The state just reached a pandemic-high in covid-19 hospitalizations, eclipsing the 2,277 high-point from November 2020. The number of covid patients in the ICU reached 488 this week, also a pandemic high.
The state is now averaging two dozen confirmed covid-19 deaths per day.
So much of this is because people have chosen not to get vaccinated. Several health leaders across the state have said the overwhelming majority of covid patients experiencing hospitalization and death are not vaccinated, with some saying as many as 90% of those in hospitals due to the virus are unvaccinated.
The latest information from the Department of Health Services says that people who are not fully vaccinated are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized from the virus and 14 times more likely to die from covid. Another recent study showed that covid is on pace to kill 300,000 unvaccinated people this year, people whose lives could be saved by a couple free shots.
Now, this isn’t March 2020. No one is suggesting reviving any of the early-pandemic mitigation strategies. We’ve learned enough about how to manage this virus that any “lockdown”-type scenario should not be something we return to. But people choosing not to get vaccinated and not to take any steps to limit spread of the virus is having a real impact on hospital capacity and health care workers in Wisconsin. These personal choices do not exist in a vacuum.
The situation was already heading in a bad direction before Omicron became the dominant variant in the nation. A team of 23 troops from the U.S. Navy was sent to Green Bay in late December for a month-long effort assisting Bellin Hospital, as it’s overrun with covid patients and had to decline hundreds of patient transfer requests. Hospitals in northern, western, and central Wisconsin had reached ICU capacity in early December.
While we continue to hope this variant proves to be less severe than others – as some reports have indicated – the sheer volume of those being infected is pushing an already-strained system even further toward its limits.
This week, Fox Valley doctors and health leaders said they are at a “breaking point,” and that “This is the worst that we’ve seen in this pandemic.”
Further evidence of a system reaching its limits came this week when Gov. Tony Evers announced that he would be deploying hundreds of service members from the Wisconsin National Guard to assist hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities across the state.
Happening just a day prior to this announcement was a hearing in the Wisconsin State Legislature on an anti-vaccine bill that would ban private businesses and government agencies from implementing vaccination requirements. During the hearing at the State Senate’s health committee, State Rep. Treig Pronschinske (R-Mondovi) uncorked an argument truly mystifying to still be making in this, the 23rd month of the pandemic in America.
Not every debate happening reaches the pathetic lows we see on the Republican side of the state legislature. To their credit, on the other side of the aisle, legislative Democrats reintroduced the Healthcare Heroes Act as a way to provide benefits like hazard pay and paid sick leave for health care workers, and GOP leadership should absolutely allow a hearing on this bill. It should have passed in 2020, after all.
But this latest covid wave has presented a seemingly endless amount of no-win situations.
No one wins when you have to make decisions about whether or not school buildings can stay open for in-person education. Virtual class is no one’s preferred outcome, but when there aren’t enough healthy teachers available to open the school, it becomes one of the only available options. At Milwaukee Public Schools, for example, more than 1,000 staff members tested positive in a three-week span. That’s not an easy problem to manage. How are you supposed to open a school without healthy teachers?
Going virtual and closing facilities for in-person classes isn’t the fault of those in the classroom. It’s not a problem exclusive to schools. We’re seeing significant disruptions in other aspects of government, too, with the Milwaukee County Transit System cutting bus lines and the Milwaukee County Jail adjusting to outbreaks affecting hundreds. The virus is disrupting everything, just as it has all along, and keeping outbreaks at manageable levels could do more to keep schools open than just saying schools should be open. Schools are about to return for classes, and hopefully, for good, but being at a stage right now when hospitals are overrun only makes this a more dangerous tight-rope to walk.
The local public health response here in Milwaukee is seeing its share of no-win situations, too. A mask requirement would be a sensible policy for the city, and is part of the reason that Dane County is seeing lower case transmission than other urban centers or surrounding counties, but in Milwaukee, it’s not that simple.
It’s not that many people wouldn’t abide by the rule. That’s an argument for not making any rules for anything, ever. It’s that the city of Milwaukee could implement a mask requirement, but unlike the other 71 counties in the state, Milwaukee County cannot institute a county-wide rule. That in itself limits the potential effectiveness of the policy. If someone wants to say, go shopping without wearing a mask, they could easily just go to West Allis or Whitefish Bay or Waukesha County. Also lessening any potential impact is the fact that the city’s health department said it would be unable to enforce a mask requirement. It’s a no-win situation, and it might not be the best step to take. A mask requirement is the right policy, but in practice, it might not be able to realistically achieve its goal.
What about other options? Could the city take a step further to require more vaccinations in public settings? Maybe. But Republican-backed groups like Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty have created a hyper-litigious environment surrounding any municipal action on covid-related public health measures in Wisconsin for the past nearly two years. That suggests that Milwaukee would face an uphill battle in implementing the type of policies that just passed in Chicago and in the Twin Cities, where proof of vaccination is required to go to bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues. But it is certainly something worth considering.
An actual win-win scenario did unfold this week when Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson worked with Gov. Tony Evers to acquire one million N95 masks for the city. Incredibly, the health department distributed all of those masks in less than a week. This partnership between the state and its largest city was not only a great collaboration, it showed just how great the demand is for high-quality masks right now. Communities statewide should follow Milwaukee’s lead and pursue similar partnerships to get these masks to their residents.
Another thing that needs a push statewide is boosters. More than 3.6 million Wisconsinites have received at least one dose of the vaccine, state data shows, but only 1.7 million doses of the booster have been administered. New data is showing that boosters are especially helpful. If you’re reading this and have not yet received your booster, now is the time.
There could be hope that this wave could soon subside. Reliable projection models show that daily deaths in this wave of the pandemic may already have peaked.
But the place we’re in right now is a difficult one. It is devastating to be here again.
I, for one, thought this pandemic was ending this past summer. When vaccines became widely available and numbers across the board saw a rapid decline, it seemed like we were moving beyond the emergency phase of the pandemic, and that whatever waves we’d see would be much more manageable than they were pre-vaccine. It seemed like it was over. I was wrong.
To be back in this place again, with overflowing hospitals – especially when so much of what’s happening is now preventable – is discouraging beyond comprehension. It feels like even if we emerge from this crushing wave, there could be another lurking months down the road.
You have to ask, at this point: When does a pandemic become a plague?
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.