Many factors likely have led Wisconsin to its position this week as the nation’s COVID-19 hotspot, but the hardest one to face may be our own behavior.
William Melms, chief medical officer at Marshfield Clinic Health System, was driving through the central Wisconsin city of Mosinee last Saturday.
“Going past the bars,” he said, “I saw that the parking lots were all full.”
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Melms said he could see no reason why COVID-19 should be spreading faster in Wisconsin than it is in neighboring Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan. He believes the difference is that people in Wisconsin have let down their guard.
“I’m incredibly frustrated and heartbroken,” he said of the state’s rising number of infections and deaths.
Over the last seven days, Wisconsin has reported an average of nearly 2,500 new coronavirus cases each day, the highest state numbers of the pandemic.
Those numbers come after a month of lifestyle changes. September brought the return of college students to campuses across the state. Schools reopened to Kindergarten through 12th grade students. The new football season arrived, and with it gameday parties — even if stadiums were empty. People with cottages up north may have enjoyed one last big gathering.
“People truly do have pandemic fatigue,” Melms said. “There’s less and less mask-wearing and social-distancing. To a great extent, people have become complacent.”
Contact tracing on recent patients reveals they appear to have had more interactions with other people than patients who were testing positive back in April and May.
Ajay Sethi, an associate professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, said that colleagues who went to cottages during the summer began reporting that they’d seen towns where no one appeared to be wearing a mask.
Sethi said one of the deans reported seeing a gas station with a sign saying either that masks were “not wanted here” or “not needed here.”
Earlier flare-ups in counties in the northern and central part of Wisconsin had led Sethi to suspect that the virus was circulating in those areas and was likely to produce a surge in cases.
He said that public health officials should look for types of group gatherings that may be fueling the outbreaks.
For example, soon after Memorial Day, Dane County experienced a rise in cases, due in part to people having backyard barbecues. Most of the infected were between the ages of 25 and 40 and may have felt that the barbecues were low-risk because they were outdoors and involved close family and friends.
Republicans less likely to comply
Another likely factor lurking in the background is politics. Sethi said that counties that voted Republican in the last election appear to be having lower rates of mask-wearing and higher numbers of COVID-19 cases.
Two recent reports support the belief that social distancing and mask-wearing are linked to political beliefs — not just in Wisconsin but across the country.
“We find that state government leaders’ recommendations were more effective in reducing mobility in Democratic-leaning counties than in Republican-leaning counties,” wrote the authors of a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Stanford University researchers conducted their study using data on daily mobility patterns for U.S. counties. They also used information on county-level political preferences and the timing of stay-at-home orders from state leaders.
A second study that has yet to be published also found a link between political beliefs and compliance with social distancing orders.
“Residents in Republican counties are less likely to completely stay at home after a state order has been implemented relative to those in Democratic counties,” wrote the authors, Marcus O. Painter at St. Louis University and Tian Qiu at the University of Kentucky. “Debit card transaction data shows that Democrats are more likely to switch to remote spending after state orders are implemented.
“Political alignment with (the) officials giving orders may partially explain these partisan differences.”
They based their findings on data from electronic devices that have been equipped to reveal the device’s location.
Melms and Sethi both said residents can slow Wisconsin’s COVID-19 outbreak with consistent mask-wearing and social distancing. Melms said it is important, too, that politicians lead by example.
“Our leaders are in a position to powerfully affect public health in this pandemic by making sure the message they send is consistent with what we all need to be doing,” he said.
“The tragedy is that much of this (the infections and deaths) is preventable.”
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: ‘Frustrated and heartbroken’: Health care workers say Wisconsin’s COVID-19 spike is the result of people ignoring preventive steps