7 Out of 19 U.S. Cities Where COVID Cases Are Rising Fastest Are in Wisconsin

COVID-19 transmission rates are spiking in seven Wisconsin communities. They are all college towns.

On Sunday, Wisconsin reported its highest total of coronavirus positive cases in one day. It’s the third time in the first 13 days of this month when a new high total was set, even though our state’s testing numbers aren’t really going up.

This outbreak isn’t happening in one or two places, like in spring when Milwaukee and Brown counties were leading the way with massive outbreaks. The uptick in spread is happening all over now. And it’s been linked to colleges.

“Our rapid antigen tests are successfully identifying pockets of infection at a few campuses. This is not a surprise,” former governor of Wisconsin and current UW System President Tommy Thompson said in a statement.

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The Data

On a daily basis, The New York Times tracks the rate of spread of the novel coronavirus in virtually every metro area nationwide. On its Monday, Sept. 14, update, seven of the 19 communities nationwide with the fastest growing rates of spread of COVID-19 are in Wisconsin. In all seven cases the cities are college towns, each of them home to at least one school in the UW System.

The second-fastest spread nationwide of any metro area is La Crosse, following only Rio Grande City in Texas. In La Crosse, last week, there were 256 new cases per 50,000 residents. Now, there are 928 new cases per 50,000. That’s an increase by more than 260%.

Following on the list are:

  • 8th fastest: Whitewater, increasing from 234 to 576 per 50,000 residents in one week
  • 9th fastest: Platteville, increasing from 98 to 252 per 50,000 residents in one week
  • 10th fastest: Madison, increasing from 1,372 to 3,354 per 50,000 residents in one week
  • 15th fastest: Green Bay, increasing from 952 new cases to 1,584 new cases per 50,000 residents in one week
  • 16th fastest: Eau Claire, increasing from 340 new cases to 664 new cases per 50,000 residents in one week
  • 19th fastest: Oshkosh-Neenah, increasing from 322 new cases to 606 new cases per 50,000 residents in one week

UW-Madison said on Sept. 9, less than two weeks into the academic year, that it would be pausing in-person classes and putting a few dorms on lockdowns for 16 days. This week, UW-La Crosse said that it too is instituting similar measures, with all dorms at the school (with an enrollment around 10,500) being quarantined.

The reasoning for this, Chancellor Joe Gow said in a statement to students, was because of “the high number of positive test results among resident students in a variety of residence halls … UW-L’s contact tracing has not revealed any evidence of transmission from in-person instruction; however, this decision comes out of an abundance of caution for our students and employees.”

Face coverings are required during instruction at UW System schools, like this one at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Photo by Dan Moore, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

But the rest of the schools in the UW System have carried on with in-person classes, albeit to varying degrees, with most students and instructors being required to wear face coverings, socially distance in classrooms, etc.

In Madison, three out of every four new COVID-19 cases have been linked to the university since Sept. 1, with the majority of those positives being students, Christy Vogt of Public Health Madison & Dane County told Milwaukee Magazine. (Dane County’s population is just shy of 550,000. UW-Madison’s enrollment, not including staff and other employees, is upward of 40,000.)

Vogt, in an email, said that her health department has “not seen evidence” of incoming students infecting members of the wider Madison community, “but it is something we are monitoring closely.”

The statement from Thompson added: “We will continue to consult with health authorities and take immediate and aggressive steps where (there are pockets of infections) to contain the spread. At the same time, we are encouraged by results at other universities, and continue to aggressively monitor and respond to conditions with the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and communities foremost in mind.”Jennifer Miller of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said that the department doesn’t want to directly say that the students are leading to the spike in numbers, but she noted that the correlation is undeniable. Since mid-August, the number of people ages 18-26 in Wisconsin who have been testing positive for COVID-19 have been skyrocketing. Miller noted that “We have no way to tell” when the rise in cases particularly within that age group will turn the corner.

As for the increases in testing linked to going back to school, Miller said, “While there is increased testing going on in these settings, which helps identify cases, looking at the testing capacity data, there hasn’t been a significant increase in tests overall.”

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Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan