A nasal swab is conducted at a mobile COVID-19 test sites to check for coronavirus
A nasal swab is conducted at a mobile COVID-19 test sites to check for coronavirus (Shutterstock image)

Explosion of cases may continue unless people return to earlier safeguards.

Editor’s Note: This is a Saturday version of a story we first published on Friday, July 10. On Sunday, July 12, there were an additional 769 new COVID-19 cases reported. They made up 10.1 percent of 7,617 total tests. And a death attributed to Iron County on Saturday was erroneous, bringing Wisconsin’s death toll down to 820.

The coronavirus continues to surge across Wisconsin as the state records its largest one-day increase in COVID-19 cases for a third straight time on Saturday, according to daily numbers provided by the state Department of Health Services

The 926 new cases reported Saturday smashes Friday’s record of 845 cases which had roared past Thursday’s record-high 754.Those high numbers continue a trend for the past three weeks of a surge in cases across the state, furthering concerns among public health officials and others. 

The state has recorded 4,624 cases in the past seven days, another new seven-day cumulative record, DHS numbers show. 

Equally concerning, Saturday’s 926 new cases represent 7.7 percent of 12,019 total tests processed, marking the highest positivity rate whenever more than 10,000 daily tests have been run. 

Saturday’s DHS report showed 31 new hospitalizations. They are among 265 current hospital patients (75 in intensive care) who have confirmed COVID-19 cases. Another 155 people are in the hospital for treatment of similar symptoms but their coronavirus test results are pending.

Five people died from COVID-19 since Friday’s report, bringing the state’s death toll to 821.

The explosion of the virus is evidence public health officials in Wisconsin are struggling to contain its spread without a state order in place. A handful of counties have enacted orders restricting sizes of gatherings, but most have no enforceable rules in place.

“I believe this is our new normal,” St. Croix County Health Department Director Kelli Engen told UpNorthNews Friday afternoon. “It seems like we’re going to see more and more cases of this virus. I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.”

DHS officials have again urged residents to practice social distancing and to refrain from large gatherings during the weekend.  

To prevent further spread of the virus, a handful of communities across the state, among them Dane County, Shorewood, and Marathon County, have approved various policies mandating the wearing of face masks in public places. City officials in Milwaukee and Green Bay are considering similar measures.

On Thursday interim UW System President Tommy Thompson said the system’s campuses will mandate the wearing of masks when school resumes.

The number of COVID-19 cases has grown more since the end of May — more than 18,000 cases — than it did from mid-March until that time. The rapid rise in cases coincides with the lifting of safer-at-home restrictions intended to slow the spread of the virus after the state Supreme Court ruled on May 12 an extension of that order wasn’t legal. 

Engen and health department directors in other parts of the state have been busy responding to bursts of new cases in recent weeks. On Thursday Engen’s department had already responded to nine new reports of the illness by noon. Three more cases occurred that afternoon, she said, and on Friday morning another five cases surfaced. 

“I’m really nervous about where this is headed,” Engen said. 

Recent virus outbreaks are occurring in many counties across the state, DHS statistics show. The majority of Wisconsin’s 72 countries are deemed high-activity locations for the disease. Locations such as Milwaukee, Dane, Brown, and Racine counties continue to be hot spots, and they have been joined by La Crosse, Walworth, Winnebago, Rock and other counties where cases have been especially fast-growing in recent weeks. 

Comparison of county-by-county COVID-19 activity levels as reported by Wisconsin DHS. Darker shades indicate high levels of disease spread.

Rural communities where COVID-19 cases had been more rare have seen surges as well, with counties such as Trempeauleau, Dodge, Clark, and Lafayette home to much-higher recent numbers, DHS figures show.  

Chippewa County has seen its cases swell quickly in the past few weeks, reaching 130 on Friday. Health department staff there are working hard to conduct contact tracing to help contain the illness, the department’s director, Angela Weideman said. But that task has become much more challenging, she said, as people infected with the virus have contact with many more people compared to when safer-at-home was in effect. 

“It’s getting to be in some cases where we can’t even track all of the people someone has been in contact with because the number is too big for them to even know everyone they have been in contact with,” Weideman said. 

During a news conference to address COVID-19 Thursday, DHS Division of Public Health Interim Administrator Stephanie Smiley advocated that people wear masks in public. 

“It is one of the only tools we have in our toolbox to slow the spread of this disease,” she said.