Janel Heinrich presser

Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County, updates reporters on the local COVID-19 surge Monday outside the Alliant Energy Center.

On the tail end of a stretch unseasonably mild weather, local leaders on Monday delivered a bleak message that the COVID-19 outbreak is spinning out of control at a time when the weather is about accelerate the spread by forcing more people indoors.

“As the weather changes, the trajectory of this illness will continue to climb if we don’t change our behavior,” Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County, said at a press conference with County Executive Joe Parisi and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.

The conference outside of the Alliant Energy Center comes as local hospitals are sounding the alarm that they are reaching their limits. On Friday, UW Hospital added a seventh COVID-19 treatment wing, and the city’s other two hospitals have had to scramble to come up with ICU beds.

“COVID-19 is ravaging our communities and overwhelming our hospitals,” Parisi said. “Our ICUs are full. Our health care system is strained.”

The spread of the pandemic is being felt statewide. Last week the daily count of new cases surpassed 7,000, only one day after breaking the 6,000 threshold, and the seven-day average for new deaths surpassed 40. Hospital admissions for COVID-19 patients break records daily.

Health officials on the local and state level have warned that the coronavirus situation in the state, one of the hardest hit in the nation, is going to get considerably worse in coming months if people don’t take action. 

“The real problem is that too many individuals are giving up on the solutions that we know work,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We need to get back to basics: Wear your mask, keep your distance, wash your hands.”

The county has had a limit on capacity in bars, restaurants, workplaces and other public spaces since Sept. 2, while a similar statewide order was thrown out by an appeals court last week. The county also has a mask mandate, while a similar statewide order is currently under state Supreme Court review after Republicans challenged it in court.

Surrounding counties have had few if any restrictions since the state Supreme Court blocked a statewide stay-at-home order in May, which “completely defeats the purpose of having local rules.”

He implored state leaders to impose a statewide plan to limit gatherings, reinforce a widely ignored mask mandate and find ways to keep people at home. 

“There are tens of thousands of cars coming in and out of Dane County every day,” he said. “What we really need, until we have that state mandate, is for people to not go out to another county neighboring us because their children are allowed to play sports there, or because there’s a bar open there, or because there’s a party there.”

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has continually urged Republican legislative leaders to come to the table and come up with a statewide plan to curb the spread. But GOP leaders have made no overtures to discuss a statewide plan.

“Our current situation, in which people are literally dying as we speak here today while state leaders are not even speaking to one another, is just simply unacceptable,” he said. “There is nothing more important right now than implementing a statewide plan to slow the spread of this virus.”

Heinrich announced data showing that 25% to 35% of those testing positive for the coronavirus have caught it as a result of gatherings, some of which have taken place outside the county where no COVID-19 regulations are in place.

“What we are seeing is people are traveling outside of Dane County to do things we’re asking you to please not do here in Dane County, whether it’s a wedding, a sporting event or visiting your family,” she said. “Those things are resulting in the spread of COVID in this community.”

She said a review of more than 2,000 people who have tested positive for the disease over the past week showed that 33% likely caught it from a household member, many of whom have attended gatherings with people they don’t live with.

She said one analysis estimated that there’s a 32% chance of someone in the room having the disease in gatherings of 10 in Dane County, 61% in gatherings of 25, and 85% in gatherings of 50.

Outside of Dane County, she said, the chances increase.

“Contact tracing notes regularly mention the words birthday, football, wedding, church, party, most recently Halloween or gatherings with friends and family,” she said. “In these private settings, distancing goes away and masks often come off.”

Highlighting the increase in mobility since the state Supreme Court blocked the statewide stay-at-home order, Rhodes-Conway pointed to a city analysis that showed that traffic had dropped by more than 50%. Since then, it’s steadily increased, with East Washington Avenue currently at 90% of normal volume.

“You may have noticed that we have morning and afternoon rush hour again,” she said.

Heinrich said the efforts by the county are working, keeping the rate of infection at 61.8 per 100,000 people compared with 97.4 for the state. But the county’s rate is still nearly twice that of the U.S. as a whole.

“We believe that what we’ve been doing is working,” she said. “But without a comprehensive and consistent approach throughout Wisconsin, the efforts of local public health and health care alone are not enough to contain this disease.”