The field hospital in West Allis. It has the capacity to treat 530 patients. (Photo provided by state Department of Administration)
The field hospital in West Allis. It has the capacity to treat 530 patients. (Photo provided by state Department of Administration)

It took the first 94 days of the pandemic to see 21,000 coronavirus cases. Wisconsin did it again in the past seven, with another daily record on Friday.

For the third time in four days, Wisconsin health officials have recorded a new record for the largest single-day increase in coronavirus cases, with 3,861 new infections. 

That total comes after 3,747 new cases were recorded Thursday and more than 3,000 new cases on both Tuesday and Wednesday, undeniably showing a growing surge of the virus that threatens to overrun hospitals’ capacity to handle the illness and health officers’ ability to track it. 

Twenty-one new deaths were reported, bringing the number of Wisconsin residents killed by the virus to 1,574. Statewide, 166,186 COVID-19 cases have been recorded, according to state Department of Health Services figures. 

Hospital administrators report those facilities, especially those in the eastern part of the state, are struggling to keep up with the fast-growing COVID-19 cases. In some locations finding enough beds is a struggle, some said, and many hospitals report staffing challenges as a growing number of workers must quarantine after being exposed to the virus. 

On Friday 58 new COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospitals statewide, bringing the total to 1,101, including 274 in intensive care units, according to Wisconsin Hospital Association figures. Both of those numbers were the highest recorded in Wisconsin since COVID-19 cases started being tracked in March. 

There was also another record set for the total number of patients on mechanical ventilators in Wisconsin hospitals. While that figure also includes an unknown number of non-coronavirus patients, the number has shot up in tandem with the state’s coronavirus surge.

Because hospitalization and death does not typically occur at the onset of COVID-19 diagnosis, Wisconsinites should expect both figures to spike in the coming weeks, said Andrea Palm, secretary-designee of DHS, in a call with reporters Thursday afternoon.

“It will get worse before it gets better,” Palm said.

The state opened the State Fair Park field hospital in West Allis to accommodate some hospitals reaching capacity to treat COVID-19 patients. That location will phase in patients as needed, Palm said, though there were not any patients at the location as of Thursday. 

Cases in Wisconsin began to climb significantly in early September as students returned to schools and universities. Cases at schools spread into surrounding communities and have led to relatively large numbers of cases throughout the state. 

Five weeks ago daily statewide case numbers were about 700 but are now more than four times that total. The daily new case average for the past seven days is just under 3,000. 

Health officials across the state have raised alarms about the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, saying too few people are taking enough precautions regarding the virus. County health officers said not enough people are wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and refraining from attending gatherings. 

“Until more people start following the recommendations, we’re going to keep seeing more of this virus,” Pierce County Health Officer AZ Snyder said during a recent interview.

On Friday health officers in Marathon, Portage and Wood counties in the central part of the state sent a joint news release to residents urging them to comply with recommendations intended to slow COVID-19 growth. All three counties are rated by DHS as having “very high” levels of the virus. 

“Very high levels of COVID-19 cases are causing our businesses and schools to struggle to stay open and are resulting in increased COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths,” the release states. “Due to the escalation in cases, local health departments are not able to notify positive cases and their close contacts in a timely manner. This severely limits efforts to contain the virus.”

Health officers report continued pushback against measures intended to slow the spread of the virus. While most residents comply with such measures, others steadfastly refuse to do so, they said, furthering the virus’ spread.  

Attempts to enforce recommendations to slow COVID-19 have prompted protests in some locations, as some residents see attempts to regulate behaviors related to COVID-19 as a government overreach rather than an emergency effort intended to save lives. In Eau Claire the City Council on Tuesday voted to postpone a controversial public health ordinance that would have aided with enforcement of an existing health order that set indoor capacity limits. 

That action prompted Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese to lift a previous countywide health order that limited the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings and required businesses to operate at no more than 50% of capacity. 

“I want you to know the vote did result in enforcement not being an option for those specific entities that may be blatantly choosing not to follow public health recommendations,” Giese said during a news conference Thursday. 

That action follows a decision on Wednesday in which a Sawyer County judge granted a temporary restraining order reversing state action to limit customer capacity in restaurants, shops and other businesses to 25% of normal occupancy limits. 

Gov. Tony Evers issued that order on Oct. 7 to try to prevent further spread of the virus. That action was contested by the Tavern League of Wisconsin, which filed a lawsuit opposing it. 

Waukesha County became the latest Republican stronghold to feel the effect of deciding against having restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, and deciding against enforcing Evers’ mask mandate. Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow announced Friday, about two-and-a-half months after dismissing the mask mandate, that he tested positive for coronavirus.

In another move that could lead to additional COVID-19 cases, President Donald Trump is scheduled to hold a rally at the Southwest Wisconsin Regional Airport in Rock County Saturday, followed by a fundraiser in Janesville

According to the Associated Press, Trump’s campaign will require rally attendees to park two miles away and be ferried to the event in shuttle buses. That decision flies in the face of health guidelines, which recommend against staying in enclosed spaces because the virus is airborne and is most easily spread indoors.

Rock County’s COVID-19 cases have exploded recently, growing from 2,670 on Oct. 1 to 3,828 as of Friday, according to local health data

The case growth has been so intense that Rock County on Thursday reported 91% of tests came back positive, a shocking level; that figure shrunk on Friday to a still-astonishing 63%. The statewide figure was 20.3% and 20.7% positive on those days, respectively, according to DHS data.