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Wisconsin Health Officials Worry About Coronavirus Surge As Cold Weather Nears


Wisconsin is the latest state to see a surge in new COVID-19 cases. Hospitalization rates are rocketing even as the weather has remained mild. Officials are concerned that people are not being vigilant enough, and they worry as cold weather approaches. Rob Mentzer of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.


ROB MENTZER, BYLINE: There are about 100 people at this high school soccer game near Wausau. All the spectators are wearing masks. A few of the players wear theirs under their chins. Dolly Fischer says her husband is watching their son's game at home on a livestream, but she's here and keeping her distance from others.

DOLLY FISCHER: I want to support my son, but at the same time, I want to try to be safe. If I hear or if I have any concern, I will pull him out.

MENTZER: In September, Wisconsin saw a big jump in new coronavirus cases. Public health officials are urging people to stay home - skip the Packers game watch parties, the weddings and youth sports events. So far, though, many Wisconsinites just aren't. Cellphone data show that people's mobility is back up to pre-pandemic levels.

Ajay Sethi is a public health professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He says the state is following the same pattern other states did earlier in the pandemic.

AJAY SETHI: When you look at the epidemic curve and just look at the shape of the line, we are New York in March.

MENTZER: Hospitalizations are the highest they've been since the pandemic began. On Tuesday, Wisconsin reported 17 COVID-related deaths, the state's most since May. The next day, 27 people died, the most ever here. Sethi suspects COVID fatigue as people tire of restricting their movements and their social interactions.

SETHI: Our guard gets let down a little bit, and we are even more susceptible that way because we're not physically distancing, not wearing masks and just sort of forgetting what we've known all along.

MENTZER: Wisconsin's seven-day average is now well above 2,000 new cases per day and growing at a fast clip. The timing of this spike is especially dangerous. In September, temperatures were still mild enough to allow for plenty of outdoor activities. Winters here can be rough. Outdoor dining won't work in December.

Mark Kaufman is chief medical officer of the Wisconsin Hospital Association. He says people need to make dramatic changes now.

MARK KAUFMAN: It is going to be a rocky two or three months. We all need to right now buckle down, do what we know will work. And even with doing that, the next few weeks are going to get worse.

MENTZER: Wisconsin's status as a presidential swing state isn't helping. On Saturday, President Trump will hold outdoor rallies in Janesville and Green Bay. Both events are expected to draw thousands of supporters - some wearing masks, many not.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Mentzer in Wausau, Wis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Mentzer (WPR)