HERE ARE A FEW THINGS THAT ARE TRUE:
- As of Saturday, April 4, there were 1,069 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Milwaukee County.
- There are certainly a lot more than 1,069 people who have COVID-19 in Milwaukee County but haven’t been tested.
- Thirty-four people in Milwaukee County have died because of COVID-19 between March 22 and April 4.
- More people are going to die.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Wisconsin isn’t rising exponentially at the moment — i.e. going up 100 one day, then 200 the next, then 400, 800, etc.
Health officials have feared that would happen. If that were to be happening, it’d be almost certain that Wisconsin’s hospitals would be overwhelmed and unable to treat the thousands of severely ill patients.
But the numbers are still rising. And fast.
In the first four days of April across Wisconsin, between 176 and 196 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 each day. And about 35% of them are in Milwaukee County.
The fact that the number of diagnosed cases is going up, and going up consistently, has health experts worried.
“We should be careful about saying: ‘It’s not exponential’ … At the moment, we are linear,” Ben Weston, medical director for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, says regarding how COVID-19 has spread in Milwaukee County. “We are not flattening.”
Weston is the first to admit that the number of confirmed cases don’t tell the whole story. That’s why he — and virtually everyone else with any knowledge of public health — says social distancing and following Safer at Home are the most important things for us all to do to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading.
Ryan Westergaard, the state’s chief medical officer for infectious diseases, says that there’s a good chance there could be 10 times as many people carrying COVID-19 in Wisconsin than have been diagnosed. Weston agrees that’s not an unreasonable estimate.
By the simple math, that means as many as 10,000 people in Milwaukee County and more than 20,000 people statewide could have the virus.
But even as testing limitations prevent us from knowing the real number, Weston points out “that the trends are more accurate than the numbers.” More simply put: As the number of confirmed cases rises, so does the number of unknown cases. If the number of confirmed cases tapers off or flattens, then it’s likely the real number is doing the same.
What to Do
When I asked Dr. Weston about when the surge that might be coming — when Wisconsin’s epidemic is at its worst — he pointed to the widely shared simulation from the University of Washington. That modeling predicts that Wisconsin’s spike is coming around April 27 or 28. How accurate that projection is, however, is anyone’s guess.
“We’re trying to predict the future, and you can only do that with so much accuracy,” Weston says.
And then when I asked what people should be doing in the coming weeks to keep themselves safe and to protect others, Weston gave two answers:
- If you have personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks or gloves — or if you have the capacity to make them, donate them any day of the week at the Tommy G. Thompson Youth Center at the State Fair Grounds. The nationwide shortage of these life-saving materials is affecting Milwaukee too.
- “More than anything else, stay at home.” That’s the best way to stop the spread, if everyone just stays home as much as possible. And when you do need to go out in public, “Go with a purpose,” Weston says. Avoid playgrounds and stay away from people on your daily walks. If you need to hit up the grocery stores, stock up, and don’t pick up one or two trivial things. It could save lives, including yours.
Still, the fact that numbers haven’t been skyrocketing (like they are in New York and how they did in Italy or in China’s Wuhan province) gives experts hope.
Andrea Palm, Evers’ secretary-designee for the Department of Health Services, says that if we had not been following safer-at-home, Wisconsin would be at 22,000 cases by April 8. To reach that number of confirmed cases by then, we’d have to start tripling every two days.
That’s why the doctors are hopeful.
There is a “glimmer of hope that what we’re doing is making a big difference,” Westergaard said Friday, three days into April. “We are flattening the curve.”
For the time being, the advice is to stay physically isolated. The CDC now has asked all Americans to wear a facemask when we’re out in public — even when you’re going for a walk or picking up groceries or what have you.
Data modeling shows Wisconsin’s COVID-19 breakout will peak in the final two weeks of April. To keep the pandemic from overwhelming hospitals, we need to stay committed to staying at home and watching Tiger King. At the end of the April, we can figure out where we stand.
For now, it’s a matter of trusting the process.