Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state of Wisconsin, 
said Tuesday during a press briefing that "we really need to take the risk seriously that this progress can be undone because of novel variants." He is pictured at a June White Coats for Black Lives rally in Madison. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state of Wisconsin, said Tuesday during a press briefing that "we really need to take the risk seriously that this progress can be undone because of novel variants." He is pictured at a June White Coats for Black Lives rally in Madison. (Photo © Andy Manis)

“My concern is that when leaders don’t act in an empathetic way … people are going to follow that cue,” Evers says.

A grim-faced, exhausted Gov. Tony Evers addressed the state Tuesday as it once again set a record for new confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths—an astounding 5,262 new cases and 64 deaths, according to the Department of Health Services—when a reporter asked him, in so many words, if there was any hope for the state as its COVID-19 numbers continue to skyrocket without any signs of slowing, let alone stoppage.

“In your opinion, do Wisconsinites have an empathy problem?” the reporter asked.

Evers did not mince words as he responded, throwing the state’s absentee Republican legislative leaders—who have not convened the Assembly and Senate in nearly 200 days—under the bus.

“I think Wisconsinites are extraordinarily empathetic,” Evers said. “My concern is that when leaders don’t act in an empathetic way, whether that’s at the federal level or the state level, people are going to follow that cue. They’re deemed to be leaders for a reason, because they influence people’s behavior.”

The extraordinary growth in both new cases and deaths comes a day after the state surpassed 200,000 total coronavirus infections, capping off a five-week period in which cases more than doubled. At the same time, multiple high-level Republican legislators from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, the Assembly’s Health Committee chairman, to Sen. Alberta Darling have recently insisted there is nothing more to be done to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Wisconsin politicians’ deliberate lack of urgency is in step with what their party leaders are displaying at the national level where President Donald Trump mocks the pandemic with taunts of, “COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID,” and his chief of staff admitted to a national television audience that, “we are not going to control the pandemic.” 

“We need folks to stop treating this virus as something that’s only happening to other people in other places,” Evers said. “This virus is here and it’s spreading all around us.”

Evers once again reinforced that people should stay home, not spend time with people outside their household or immediate family, and pick up food from restaurants if eating out. 

“Wisconsin is in a crisis,” said DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm.

Contact tracers are “overwhelmed,” while hospitals are “strained,” Palm said. Tuesday’s statewide test positivity rate was 31.8%; an acceptably safe level is generally considered to be 5%. Statewide, hospitals are treating 1,385 COVID-19 patients, with 339 of those in intensive care and 447 total patients on ventilators, according to DHS. Five patients have been admitted to the state’s alternate care facility at State Fair Park in West Allis.

And yet Palm and Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the state’s top infectious disease expert and chief medical officer with DHS, anticipate the situation will only get worse in the coming weeks because deaths and hospitalizations occur days or weeks after the onset of the virus.

“It’s a nightmare scenario, frankly,” said the typically calm and reserved Westergaard.