Across The Country, A Spike In Coronavirus Cases
This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. See COVID-19 coverage by Wyoming Public Radio and WisContext.
Over 217,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., and many states are seeing an upswing in case numbers as we head into fall.
In rural Wyoming, there have been over 8,100 cases, with 57 deaths to date. More populated Wisconsin has seen over 167,000 cases—and recently crossed the grim threshold of 1,500 deaths due to the disease. Both states have reported more hospitalizations, with Wisconsin this week opening a field hospital to help deal with the increased demand for medical care and pressure on hospitals.
In this State of Science segment, Ira talks with Bob Beck, news director at Wyoming Public Radio, and Will Cushman, associate editor for WisContext, about how their communities are responding to the pandemic.
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Will Cushman is an associate editor at Wiscontext in Madison, Wisconsin.
Bob Beck is news director at Wyoming Public Radio in Laramie, Wyoming.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, a look at the new tech frontier in China. But first, it’s time to check in on the state of science.
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IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national importance. Around the country, the COVID-19 pandemic rages on with numbers increasing in most states. We wanted to check in on how some communities are reacting to the pandemic. Joining me now are Will Cushman, associate editor with WisContext. That’s based in Madison, Wisconsin. And Bob Beck, news director at Wyoming Public Radio in Laramie, Wyoming. Welcome to Science Friday.
BOB BECK: Thank you.
WILL CUSHMAN: Thanks, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Will, let me ask you first. Some of the nation’s most alarming COVID statistics this week are coming out of Wisconsin. Can you give us an idea of what’s going on there?
WILL CUSHMAN: Yeah, we are hitting new daily highs in multiple days this week. And our seven day average for new cases is also a record high. We’re also seeing now a pretty staggering increase in the number of deaths that are being reported every day. That’s gone up pretty steadily over the last couple of weeks and it’s really spiked in the last few days. It’s definitely alarming officials to the point where a field hospital is opening up this week in the Milwaukee area to help care for some of the recovering COVID patients from around the state.
IRA FLATOW: Has there been any reason, any one thing, that is driving this increase?
WILL CUSHMAN: That’s a really good question. And I would say that there really is no one reason. Cases have been kind of steadily climbing across the state for a couple months now. And there were certainly spikes associated with the start of school, particularly with universities reopening in the beginning of September.
There is kind of widespread testing of students, especially in the University of Wisconsin system, that uncovered a large number of cases. And there was some spill over into those local communities where the universities are based that was documented by local health departments. But it’s now to the point where the disease is clearly spreading across the community. It’s not necessarily associated with any one type of activity.
IRA FLATOW: So no one can point their fingers at social distancing, or mask wearing, or people just congregating and then taking it very lightly?
WILL CUSHMAN: Yeah, you know, Wisconsin’s been under a statewide mask mandate since August 1st. It’s not clear how well people are adhering to that mask mandate kind of throughout the state. It definitely sounds as though, anecdotally, that there are large parts of the state where adherence to that mandate is pretty low.
Governor Tony Evers’ actually kind of alarm about the spike in cases last week, declared a new emergency order limiting capacity in indoor private venues like bars and restaurants to 25%. Althought just this week, there is a lawsuit filed by the Tavern League of Wisconsin. And that order has been temporarily blocked by a judge pending a hearing next week.
IRA FLATOW: Bob Beck, what is the epidemic, the pandemic looking like in Wyoming these days?
BOB BECK: It’s really picked up since the start of the fall. The University of Wyoming, where I’m talking to you from, has certainly seen some increases in the county. A lot of that, of course, related to some social gathering that had involved alcohol in some cases.
There’s also been a lot of work place clusters, long term care facilities which got opened up this summer have had a few outbreaks. So that’s what we’re seeing, a lot of challenges taking place right now.
IRA FLATOW: I was speaking to a Wyoming resident earlier this week who said that it was strange there because hospitals were filling up. But all the schools were open and no one was wearing masks. And the thought from this person was, well, no one’s dying, so no one’s taking it seriously yet. When they start dying, they’ll take it seriously.
BOB BECK: And that’s the common thing you hear. Today, as we speak, there’s 57 deaths in the state. And so if you’re in some other places, that doesn’t sound like much at all. And I think that’s what maybe has convinced people that, I don’t know if they think it’s necessarily a hoax, but it’s nothing to be concerned about. It sort of depends on where you go, Ira.
In our county, actually, in a lot of the stores and restaurants, people are wearing face coverings for the most part. But our bars, unlike Wisconsin, our bars are open and there are people that– I see some social media posts where it’s business as usual. And so clearly people aren’t that worried about it. And the governor has chosen just to more or less plead with people for the love of goodness, please wear your mask and please wash your hands and social distance. But there have been no mandates.
IRA FLATOW: Earlier in the year, many people were attributing a surge in cases to college students not following guidelines. Have you seen that as a problem in Wyoming?
BOB BECK: Yes, we certainly have seen that as an increase. The University of Wyoming actually had a meeting today. And they’re trying to get more of a handle on it. And I think as they start having more cases and get to see what’s happening to other students, that’s going to, they hope, work and start slowing it down. But that has certainly driven a lot of numbers.
We’ve got community colleges across the state as well who have seen some increases as well as a trade school or two. And in fact, our younger population, which I thought was interesting, has about a quarter of the cases. Our 30 and under population is our largest number in the state.
IRA FLATOW: Interesting. How are the hospitals holding up?
BOB BECK: Well, we had a story this week that they’re starting to fill up. And ICU is certainly a concern, intensive care unit is certainly a concern a lot of places, including in Laramie and in some of the bigger cities as we’re starting to see more and more people stay there for long periods of time.
People are a little worried about what the future looks like. Our state health officer is worried about it, but there’s also an argument being made that we have better treatment options. We know how to handle the cases that we’re seeing. And so there’s some alarm. There’s worry, Ira, but not over the top just yet.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Will Cushman, let’s go back to Wisconsin and you there with the hospital outlook. You said there’s a new field hospital opening. Are people getting worried about it?
WILL CUSHMAN: Yeah, I think people have been worried about it for four weeks now. And worry is really hitting a crescendo at the moment. Hospitals are really straining into the Green Bay Area and the Fox Valley near Green Bay, so that would be around Appleton and the city of Oshkosh.
But really, hospitalizations are on the rise across the state. There’s a record number of hospitalizations in South Central Wisconsin, including Madison as well as Southeast Wisconsin or the Milwaukee area. And statewide we are nearing 1,000 current hospitalizations due to the disease, which is an all-time high.
IRA FLATOW: We talked about the governor’s mask order. And this week the courts upheld the Wisconsin governor’s mask order. Tell us about that. What kind of stress went through the community, waiting for that ruling?
WILL CUSHMAN: It’s unclear to me how much stress individuals maybe felt about the mandate being in limbo. I think people are getting pretty set in their views on the disease and mitigation strategies like face coverings. And people are either enthusiastically taking them up, adhering to them pretty well or not. And I think those attitudes are becoming firmer and firmer over the course of the pandemic.
IRA FLATOW: Bob Beck, Wyoming is obviously a lot more open in distance between people. Social distancing is almost there naturally, right, as opposed to it an urban area? I would imagine that this is part of the reason that it’s making it harder psychologically for people to follow health guidelines. Would you say there’s something to that?
BOB BECK: Oh, absolutely. And you’re absolutely correct. And that’s the argument you hear from a lot of people, is we naturally social distance. For people that don’t know, we don’t even have a community above 70,000 in our state. And we’re very independent people, Ira. And so when things were shut down earlier this year, there was a lot of outcry from many citizens in our state. And so it’s definitely a unique place, a lot of wide open space. But sometimes that can be to our detriment as well.
IRA FLATOW: Are there trends even across your state, or are there parts that are clearly doing much better or much worse than other places?
BOB BECK: Absolutely. We have a county that has had two cases. And I think they got their second one a month ago. And so we have places where it really hasn’t shown up that much. And they’re not necessarily because of anything they’re doing. I think in some instances, it’s been luck. But we have seen some places where it’s bigger.
Albany county, where the university is, as soon as the student population kind of came back I think people were sure something might change. And in fact, it did. We had some big jumps. Teton County, where Jackson Wyoming is, is a very touristy area, Cody, Wyoming, just outside of Yellowstone, both of those areas have seen some increases. And a lot of that be because of tourists. And Casper and Cheyenne, Wyoming certainly have seen some increases too. But there’s other parts of the state that had some surges but then they went away.
IRA FLATOW: And in Wisconsin you’re seeing all kinds of court cases coming up. Where do we stand with challenges to various things?
WILL CUSHMAN: Right, the challenge to Governor Evers’ latest order limiting capacity of bars and restaurants, that’s been temporarily blocked. And there will be a hearing next Monday to hear the Tavern League’s case there. And then the challenge to the governor’s mask mandate, a circuit judge did decline to overrule the mandate. And in fact said that that’s the job of the legislature. And that the legislature can act whenever it decides to overturn the mask mandate if it were to choose to do so.
There has been a little bit of rumbling that the Republican-controlled legislature may be waiting until after the election to try to overturn the mask mandate. But that’s kind of unclear. There’s definitely some political machinations going on, make the current situation a little muddied.
IRA FLATOW: That’s a good place to stop because we’ll have to wait and see a lot of things following the election in just about three weeks. I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today.
BOB BECK: Thank you for having me.
WILL CUSHMAN: Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Will Cushman, associate editor with WisContext, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Bob Beck, news director at Wyoming Public Radio in Laramie, Wyoming.
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