Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state of Wisconsin, is pictured at a June White Coats for Black Lives rally in Madison. On Tuesday, he warned Wisconsinites the coronavirus "is everywhere."(Photo © Andy Manis)
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state of Wisconsin, is pictured at a June White Coats for Black Lives rally in Madison. On Tuesday, he warned Wisconsinites the coronavirus "is everywhere."(Photo © Andy Manis)

The increased number of hospitalizations, increase in COVID-19 cases among all age groups in Wisconsin support assessment.

The state’s top infectious disease doctor said Tuesday it is now “safe to assume” that the coronavirus is everywhere in Wisconsin.

During a media briefing with reporters, Dr. Ryan Westergaard said epidemiologists often talk about localized versus generalized epidemics. 

He said the coronavirus in Wisconsin has morphed from a localized version, where health officials have the ability to respond to specific outbreaks and clusters, to the more dangerous and problematic generalized version.

“A generalized epidemic truly puts everyone at risk,” Westergaard said.

Data points that prove to him that this is the case include the overall growth in positive cases among all age groups, an increase in the virus’ severity that is putting more people in the hospital, and record-setting day after record-setting day of new cases and the percent positivity rate. 

Even more troubling is the fact local public health officials can no longer keep up with a fundamental tool to contain all communicable viruses by performing contact tracing on those testing positive. 

“The level of transmission we have right now is out-stripping our ability to do that, which means it is safe to assume the virus is everywhere,” Westergaard said. 

Westergaard’s assessment of the coronavirus comes as the state sees an increase of 2,367 new cases Tuesday and an additional 17 people dying due to the virus. In all, 1,300 people have lost their lives in Wisconsin since the start of the pandemic.

According to the Wisconsin Hospital Association, the number of patients hospitalized due to the coronavirus is now 646, with 205 being treated in intensive care rooms. The number of patients in an intensive care bed jumped by 32 from the previous day. 

For the sake of comparison, the association reported last Thursday that there were 528 patients hospitalized and 508 hospitalized on Wednesday. That means the number of hospitalized patients statewide increased by 138 patients in a six-day span.

“That means everyone needs to change their behavior because when the virus spreads to this degree we lose that fine-tuned information to know exactly where we are,” Westergaard said, specifically referring to the inability of health officials to keep up with the spread of the disease by using contact tracers. 

Andrea Palm, secretary-designee of the state Department of Health Services, said it is time for everyone to take individual responsibility for their actions and that wearing a mask is a minimum.

“Now really is the time to make different choices about our actions and our activities,” Palm said. “We need to make choices closer to the types of choices we were making in March and April then the choices we have been making the past couple of months.”

This means staying home, not going out to restaurants or bars, and not hosting get-togethers with family or friends. 

She said the state is in “active” conversations with hospitals about how to handle staff shortages, as more healthcare workers are being quarantined after coming in contact with the virus.

She also said the state’s alternative care facilities, including the 754-bed makeshift hospital created inside Milwaukee’s State Fair Exposition Center in April, is able to treat patients if hospitals anywhere in the state reach capacity. 

“We built it as the ultimate insurance policy,” Palm said. “If we wait until we need the alternative care facility, we have waited too long (to all take action against the coronavirus).”