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The number of Wisconsinites hospitalized for coronavirus is growing, one reminder that coronavirus ‘hasn’t gone anywhere’

The number of Wisconsinites hospitalized due to COVID-19 has been on the rise in recent weeks.

More than 400 patients statewide were hospitalized with coronavirus as of Wednesday morning, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association and state health officials. Fewer than 300 were hospitalized in early May.

The latest number — 413 currently hospitalized coronavirus patients — was down slightly from 422 on Tuesday. 

But an additional 335 people are hospitalized while awaiting coronavirus test results, surpassing the previous high of 295, in early April.

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Most of the COVID-19 patients in the state are in southeastern Wisconsin, which on Wednesday reported 290 people are hospitalized with coronavirus.

Ben Weston, director of medical services in the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, noted an upward trend in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Milwaukee County over the past two weeks, from 146 on May 14 to 205 on Tuesday,

The figure dropped to 180 on Wednesday, but it’s a concerning trend overall, he said.

“If tomorrow we see we’re right back up to 200 and we keep creeping up, then I think we got to step back and say, what’s going on?” he said.

The increasing hospitalizations come as Wisconsin on Wednesday reported its largest single-day increases in coronavirus deaths, cases and tests. After the state count increased by just 10 between Sunday and Tuesday, 22 deaths were reported Wednesday, bringing the total to 539. The previous single-day high was 19.

Newly confirmed cases totaled 599 in Wisconsin, breaking the state’s record of 528 set a week earlier.

The troubling record-setting coronavirus numbers were reported two weeks after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at home order.

State health officials on Wednesday said they couldn’t say whether the new COVID-19 cases are linked to the court’s decision to overturn the order.

“I think we would not feel confident saying that on the two-week anniversary, we are attributing increases to the lifting of Safer at Home, but we certainly will continue to track the data,” Andrea Palm, secretary of the state Department of Health Services, told reporters.

She urged people to maintain physical distancing to “keep the curve flat, to help continue to protect the people of this state, particularly those that are most vulnerable.”

“We obviously are concerned about outbreaks and hot spots around the state. We are concerned about the increase — the slight increase in hospitalizations — that we’re seeing in some parts of the state,” Palm said.

While state health officials were hesitant to link the new cases to any one specific cause or event, they noted how the highly contagious virus is spread.

“All 599 cases that were diagnosed today resulted from a person being in close contact with another person who had the infection,” said Ryan Westergaard, the chief medical officer at the Department of Health Services. “And that’s the only thing we can say with certainty.”

Researchers said it is especially difficult to link cases to one single event now that Wisconsin is nearly fully reopened, and the phased approach outlined under Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order — meant to allow health officials to track how, where and why cases were rising — is out the window.

“Now, it’s going to be much harder to understand if we do see a surge in cases, what was the thing that really contributed the most to that happening,” said Amanda Simanek, an associate professor of epidemiology in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Zilber School of Public Health.   

Oguzhan Alagoz, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an infectious disease modeling expert, said the increases Wisconsin is seeing are likely driven by many factors, like increased testing availability.

Palm also noted that the state reported 10,330 new test results Wednesday, the first time it had surpassed 10,000 tests reported in a day.

Of those tests, 5.8% were positive — down from 8% on May 20.

People are also interacting and moving about more — and have been since before the state order was lifted, according to daily cellphone mobility data that showed people were apparently developing “quarantine fatigue.”  

Weston said even he gets the sense sometimes that the pandemic is coming to an end and things are returning to normal.

“And then we snap back to reality and unfortunately COVID hasn’t gone anywhere,” he said. “It’s still here. It’s just as much, if not probably more, here than it was back when we had stay-at-home orders. All that’s changed is the orders and the law that surrounds it.”

And as people increasingly venture out of their homes, there’s no reason to think that there won’t be increased spread of the virus, increased hospitalizations and, to some degree, increased deaths, he said.

Simanek and Alagoz agreed, noting that how cautious people remain in their interactions will play a major role in how large an increase Wisconsin could see. While the state may not see one major spike, localized clusters of cases are a big concern.

“It won’t necessarily be one thing,” Simanek said. “You could have outbreaks that are tied to a certain group gathering or outbreaks that are tied to a certain physical location, like we have seen happen across the U.S.”

Alagoz said early mobility data shows people are taking precautions despite moving more.

“With current levels of movement, if people didn’t wear masks, if people were behaving as they were pre-March 10, believe me, we would have seen a double, triple, exponential increase in the number of cases,” Alagoz said.

Without the order, Alagoz and other experts say, those precautions — wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and limiting interactions to small, consistent groups — will determine how large the increase in cases will be.

Contact Mary Spicuzza at (414) 224-2324 or mary.spicuzza@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MSpicuzzaMJS.

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