Surging COVID-19 numbers, the approach of the holiday season and unrealistic hopes that a vaccine will stop the pandemic in its tracks have prompted a spate of public health messages aimed at making people think twice about attending gatherings.
Public Health Madison & Dane County on Tuesday issued an order prohibiting indoor gatherings of any size involving people outside the household, and limiting outdoor gatherings to 10 people, and then only with physical distancing.
The order comes as the state reported another grim statistic on Tuesday: a record 92 deaths, shattering the previous record of 66. New cases numbered 7,090, the fifth time in 10 days that new cases exceeded 7,000. The seven-day average is at 6,429.
While Wisconsin is one of the hardest hit states, the spread of the virus continues at an alarming pace nationwide. On Tuesday, the nation’s one-day count hit 166,045, according to Johns Hopkins University, after breaking the 100,000 mark less than two weeks ago.
Also on Tuesday, the Democratic governors of five Midwestern states, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Kentucky and Illinois, held an online press conference to urge people to forego gathering in-person for Thanksgiving, and to warn of tough months ahead as promising vaccine candidates move through regulatory and distribution processes.
“No one wants Thanksgiving, which is an amazing time, to become a superspreader event in the United States or in our given state,” said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear.
Republican Govs. Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Mike DeWine of Ohio were scheduled to take part in the Zoom event, but couldn’t because of scheduling conflicts, according to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“It’s a bipartisan effort,” Whitmer said, adding that all the governors have been in contact since the early weeks of the pandemic.
Since the early months of the pandemic, measures to prevent the spread of the virus like wearing masks and social distancing have become bitterly partisan, with conservatives pushing back against state mandates and public health orders.
“This is a group that regularly has been working together, has been helping one another,” Whitmer said. “Just because we had a scheduling issue with two of the governors that were supposed to join us, please don’t take from that anything other than we’re all managing through a crisis and our schedules change quickly.”
The Republicans joined Democrats in a video urging people to take measures to slow the spread.
“It’s more important now than ever that we double down on mask wearing and physical distancing,” DeWine says in the video, “to help more people get through the winter and protect the brave men and women serving on the front lines of this crisis, our doctors, nurses, grocery store workers and truck drivers.”
The Dane County order, which continues the county mask mandate and 50% capacity limit at businesses and 25% at restaurants, goes into effect on Wednesday, eight days before Thanksgiving. The order is in effect until Dec. 16. It comes as the county’s seven-day average reaches 433 cases a day, twice that of a month ago.
“We cannot pretend that this is going to be a normal Thanksgiving," said Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway in a statement announcing the order. "We know that many of the people we want to spend time with are very vulnerable to the virus.”
So far, 22,848 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county; 62 people have died.
“Every gathering – no matter the size – is an opportunity for disease spread and prolongs the pandemic,” said Dane County public health director Janel Heinrich in the statement. “We are hopeful that with the community’s cooperation, we can bring our numbers down and avoid more hospitalizations and deaths.”
The order nixes all in-person sporting events, conferences, movies, group exercise classes and any other indoor gatherings and replaces current limits of indoor gatherings of 10 and outdoor gatherings of 25. Violators could see a fine of $1,000, plus costs.
“Our hospitals are overflowing, our doctors and nurses are running ragged, and everywhere we turn, there is sickness, creating a challenge like none other we have ever seen," said County Executive Joe Parisi. "These new orders, like their predecessors, are designed to call attention to where we are seeing the greatest amount of disease spread and interrupt the virus' quick movement through our community."
The health department on Tuesday reported 174 COVID-19 inpatients in Dane County hospitals, a new record. Forty-eight of those were in intensive care, also a record. The department reported that many hospitals in the state’s southern region were at capacity or strained. In the two weeks before Nov. 9, nine hospitals in the region reported at least one day of critical staffing shortages, one of those in Dane County.
With optimistic news on a vaccine from Pfizer last week and Moderna this week, both of which reported their candidates initially looked at least 90% effective, health officials are warning people against letting their guard down as those vaccines and others churn through the regulatory system and overcome daunting distribution challenges.
“On day one, we’re not going to have 5.8 million people vaccinated,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health Services, at a press briefing on the state’s coming vaccine distribution efforts. “It’s going to take a number of months for us to get everyone in the state who desires to have this vaccine vaccinated.”
She called the coming vaccination effort “even more complicated than we had ever imagined.”
“It will be the most extraordinary public health intervention our state has ever undertaken,” she said. “It poses significant challenges, such as the need for ultra-cold storage and multiple vaccines from multiple manufacturers on different schedules.”
For several months, as the vaccine distribution effort continues, people will be urged to get tested and continue social distancing and wearing masks.
”We still need to continue taking steps to protect ourselves, our families and our communities, both now and when the vaccine becomes available,” said Stephanie Schauer, the state’s public health immunization program manager,
While the vaccines, which require two doses, may be cleared for distribution by the end of the year, there will initially be a limited supply, which will likely go to hospitals and nursing homes for front-line health care workers, and for vulnerable populations at long-term care facilities.
“It will start small and it will grow over time,” Willams Van Dijk said.
As supply increases, the vaccines will be distributed to health care providers to be used for the general population, Willams Van Dijk said.
“Just like our testing program, where will over half of our tests have been done by practitioners in the health care system, we anticipate many, many, many vaccines will be given by going to your primary care provider,” she said. “But we will also make sure that there is a system of community-based clinics that people can go to to access the vaccine.”