The state sees some good trends in the past week, but Thanksgiving could be a make-or-break period.
The coronavirus pandemic is still raging throughout Wisconsin—the state recorded more than 100 deaths for the first time on Tuesday—but Medical College of Wisconsin President and CEO Dr. John Raymond has a degree of hopefulness that has been hard to come by in recent months.
“I think we can see light at the end of the tunnel,” Raymond said during a virtual Milwaukee Press Club luncheon Tuesday afternoon. “But the tunnel is still very long.”
Raymond said he is incredibly optimistic of the promising vaccines from companies such as Pfizer and Moderna that will likely be publicly available for millions of people within the next couple months, but he cautioned that immediate issues still pose significant risk.
The Department of Health Services reported a record 104 deaths on Tuesday, breaking the previous record of 92 set Nov. 17.
Raymond said, however, there have been several positive signs recently that indicate the state is turning a corner with the pandemic. Case numbers have been trending down. There were 6,202 new cases reported on Tuesday, down from the record 7,989 set on Nov. 18.
The seven-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin plummeted from a peak of 6,563 on Nov. 18 to 5,732 as of Tuesday—still an incredibly high number, considering the seven-day average was 981 cases on Sept. 1, but a positive development nonetheless. Hospitalizations from COVID-19 have also dropped for six of the past seven days, though 85% of beds are still full statewide.
But those positive developments are fragile.
Many people are expected to host family gatherings for Thanksgiving, ignoring the advice of public health experts who have been pleading with Wisconsinites to stay home to slow the spread of the pandemic. Gatherings pose a risk of reversing the positive trends the state has seen over the past week as.
“Where the pandemic is actually taking hold right now is in small family gatherings and leisure time activities,” Raymond said. “And as we enter the holiday season, if people ignore the recommendations of public health officials, it’s very likely that we will overwhelm the capacity of our health systems who take care of everybody, whether they have COVID-19 or not.”
He said hospitals should be able to weather the storm “barring another huge surge associated with holiday activities.”
Healthcare workers themselves can easily get burned out when they see people blatantly ignoring health guidelines, Raymond said.
“It’s nice that the community calls healthcare workers heroes and early on were providing free food and things like that,” Raymond said. “It’s more meaningful if people actually take their personal responsibility seriously.”
Personal responsibility includes masks and distancing
Also on Tuesday, Mayo Clinic released unpublished data confirming that maintaining physical distance helps prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the effectiveness of wearing a mask in preventing virus transmission.
The study by Mayo researchers shows 3 feet of distance between people is helpful in preventing transmission of the virus, but 6 feet reduces the spread of virus particles to extremely low levels. Researchers measured how effectively masks and distance blocked aerosol particles from a masked source simulating someone with COVID-19.
“We found the most important measure for reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is to wear a mask,” Dr. Matthew Callstrom, chairman of the radiology department at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, said in the release.
During a virtual press conference with the media Tuesday, Dr. Amy Williams, dean of practice at Mayo Clinic, noted the new research and urged people to wear masks, maintain social distance, and refrain from gathering for Thanksgiving or other occasions to slow virus spread.
“The [study] results tell us unequivocally that masking is the thing to do,” she said.
UpNorthNews reporter Julian Emerson contributed to this story.