More than 1,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin since the coronavirus pandemic began, state health officials announced Tuesday.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 724 more cases and eight more deaths, bringing the total number of cases in the state to 61,785 and the number of deaths to 1,006.
That’s more than five people dying per day, or one person every four to five hours, since Wisconsin confirmed its first case a little over six months ago.
Despite avoiding the worst-case scenarios predicted when the pandemic first hit, the number of deaths is still troubling, said University of Wisconsin-Madison epidemiologist Patrick Remington.
“It’s been hard to get the general public and even some policymakers to realize how serious a disease this is,” Remington said. “These are absolutely preventable deaths.”
A Fond du Lac County man in his 50s and an Ozaukee County man in his 90s were the first reported COVID-19 deaths in Wisconsin on March 19.
More than 300 people died during spikes in early April and early June. In late June and early July, the rate of death fell to about one-third as high as during those peaks.
But new cases began to surge at the same time, and more deaths have followed. In the past four weeks, the death rate has crept back up.
“Given the lag from cases to when eventually we see the increase in deaths, this may just be the beginning of the increase,” said Amanda Simanek, an epidemiologist with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “It’s hard to say.”
Expressed as a fraction, the death toll is one in every 5,789 residents, or 17 per 100,000 people. That rate ranks 36th in the nation — one-tenth as high as in New Jersey (179) and lower than in neighboring states Michigan (65), Illinois (62), Minnesota (30) and Iowa (30).
But that’s in just six months. If it continued its pace, COVID-19 would kill about 34 people per 100,000 a year, and would become anywhere between the fourth and the eighth leading cause of death in Wisconsin, despite the sweeping measures undertaken to try to control the spread. Based on 2017 numbers, it would rank:
- About a fifth as high as the leading causes of death, heart disease (158) and cancer (153)
- Lower than accidents (58)
- Similar to chronic lower respiratory disease (38), stroke (34) and Alzheimer’s disease (32)
- Higher than drug overdose (21), diabetes (19), suicide (15), flu/pneumonia (13), kidney disease (13), and homicide (4).
The death toll has been used to reinforce arguments on both sides of the policy debate: It’s either too high for inaction, or too low to justify restrictions that might negatively affect peoples’ livelihoods.
“Even one death from COVID-19 is one too many,” said Gov. Tony Evers in a statement Tuesday. “To all the Wisconsinites dealing with the loss of a family member, a friend, a coworker, or a neighbor, I express my deepest condolences. Know that our hearts and thoughts are with you, and we are going to continue doing everything we can to fight this virus that has already taken the lives of so many across our state.”
As of Monday, less than 2% of Wisconsinites who tested positive for COVID-19 have died, according to state data. The actual fatality rate is likely much lower, experts say, since many people who are positive for COVID-19 have not been tested.
But researchers also worry that the real death toll of the pandemic may be undercounted. Calculations of so-called “excess deaths” show that Wisconsin, like many other states, is experiencing a high number of deaths compared to what is expected at this time of year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last week that Wisconsin could have a wide range of between 0 and 792 excess deaths not explained by COVID-19 since Feb. 1, depending on how past mortality rates were defined.
Excess deaths could be a sign that public health officials are missing COVID-19 deaths. Or, they could be due to unrelated conditions that were exacerbated by the pandemic, such as people who feared going to the hospital or suffered because resources were stretched too thin.
COVID-19 has hit hardest among Wisconsin’s elderly and ill
The disease has been particularly cruel to the elderly.
The median age of those who have died of COVID-19 complications is 75, based on the detailed cases compiled in a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin spreadsheet created to track the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
And four in 10 people who died lived in a long-term care facility.
Of Wisconsin’s 1,006 total deaths, 719 were people age 70 or older as of Tuesday, accounting for 71% of the deaths. Residents older than 90 account for just 1% of confirmed cases and 19% of deaths. Eighty-somethings account for 2% of cases and 27% of deaths; 70-somethings 5% and 26%, respectively.
Only eight 20-somethings have died, despite accounting for a quarter of total confirmed cases. No Wisconsin resident under 20 has died from COVID-19.
Across Wisconsin, 50 people under age 50 have died of COVID-19 as of Tuesday. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin has detailed information on 27 of these cases, and all but three had underlying conditions listed. The youngest was 21 and had cancer. Among these 27 cases, the most common underlying health conditions were obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Scientists still don’t fully understand why COVID-19 seems to be so deadly for older people and those with chronic conditions.
“We know in general that any illness is going to be harder on somebody with chronic disease and risk factors like obesity or cigarette smoking or diabetes,” said Remington. “But this seems to be particularly hard on those individuals.”
Of the more than 400 cases that USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin has detailed information on, the majority of which are from Milwaukee County, just 12 victims of COVID-19 had no underlying conditions listed.
The most common underlying health conditions were high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, obesity and kidney failure. A number of those who died of COVID-19 had dementia, but it was rarely the only underlying condition listed.
People of color have been more likely to die from COVID-19
Deaths have also been disproportionately concentrated in Black and Hispanic communities, which the CDC says are especially vulnerable because of longstanding socioeconomic disparities.
Among other things, people of color are more likely to have jobs as essential workers, more likely to ride public transportation, more likely to live in inter-generational households without space to self-quarantine, more likely to have chronic illnesses and more likely to have difficulties accessing health care.
It’s not surprising that the pandemic has fallen hardest on communities of color, said UW-Madison Population Health Institute researcher Olivia Little.
“While the pandemic affects everyone, it’s not affecting everyone in the same way,” Little said.
As of Tuesday, Black people made up 7% of the state’s population but accounted for 21% of deaths. Hispanic people also made up around 7% of the population but accounted for 12% of deaths.
The racial disparities are even more pronounced in the city of Milwaukee, which was began reporting race and ethnicity data early on the pandemic while many other states and municipalities were still struggling to collect it in a consistent way.
“It was important to make sure that data was available at the beginning of our COVID response,” said Jeanette Kowalik, Milwaukee’s commissioner of health. “It really shaped our ability to be nimble and make adjustments in our strategy along the way.”
The most recent waves of deaths have been mostly white and non-Hispanic people, which may be a sign that COVID-19 is reaching increasingly into rural communities.
At 800 deaths in Wisconsin, only 44 counties had reported deaths. By Tuesday, that number had increased to 52.
Although the counties reporting higher numbers of deaths, such as Milwaukee, Racine, Waukesha, Kenosha and Brown, tend to be urban, some of the state’s rural counties like Iron, Barron and Marinette are seeing high case growth in recent weeks.
Still, public health experts say pandemic responses have to be thought out and funded with the most vulnerable people in mind. That could mean distributing free masks, coordinating temporary quarantine housing for people who can’t isolate at home, or providing protective equipment and financial assistance for essential workers.
“It’s inevitable another pandemic-type virus is going to come along,” Simanek said. “Hopefully we’re learning these lessons about how to do this better.”
As deaths surpass 1,000, hospitalizations are up in Wisconsin
Nearly 5,100 people had been hospitalized by COVID-19, according to DHS, though it’s unknown in more than a third of cases whether somebody was ever admitted to a hospital.
As of mid-afternoon Monday, hospitals were reporting 414 known COVID-19 patients in Wisconsin hospitals, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association, the highest level since late May.
Of those patients, 119 were in intensive care. Another 207 inpatients were awaiting COVID-19 test results, according to DHS.
About 83% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Wisconsin are classified by the state as having “recovered,” though officials have admitted this is an imprecise measure, necessarily so because people may not always report the resolution of their symptoms to public health.
DHS considers somebody recovered if they have either: 1. documented proof that their symptoms have resolved or their isolation has ended, or 2. more than 30 days have passed since diagnosis.
In rare cases, recoveries may take longer than 30 days.
And for some survivors, health problems have continued for long after the virus itself is gone.
A CDC survey of COVID-19 patients found that more than a third of these so-called “long haulers” had not returned to their usual health two to three weeks after testing positive.
Although they have little solid research to rely on for now, doctors suspect the virus can lay dormant for a few months before flaring up again in survivors.
Tuesday’s state update included 13,599 tests, of which 5.3% were positive.
Reports of new cases may not always align with the date of symptom onset or diagnosis, because of delays in testing and reporting results to public health. Likewise, deaths may not be entered the day they occurred.
Experts worry about the fall, say mask wearing is crucial
Although experts are tentatively predicting that Wisconsin is past the latest peak, public health experts are worried about what the fall will bring.
Schools are reopening, coinciding with the start of flu season and cooler weather, which will drive more people to congregate indoors.
The disease has so far proven to be relatively mild in young people, but public health experts are concerned about students subsequently spreading the disease to teachers, parents and other relatives.
Because of those factors, Remington predicts that the number of coronavirus-related deaths in Wisconsin will surpass 2,000 by the end of the year.
“This is one giant experiment,” he said.
Despite the progress that scientists have made in understanding COVID-19, Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist with UW-Madison, said the basics have remained constant: COVID-19 remains a respiratory disease that is spread through small droplets produced by talking and coughing.
That means that continuing to wear a mask and staying at home as much as possible are still the most powerful tools to combat the virus, despite their simplicity, he said.
“Where COVID deaths rank at the end of the year will depend on how universally masks will be adopted in the short- and long-term,” Sethi said.
At a news conference Friday, Wisconsin Department of Health Services officials pleaded with the public to take the virus seriously and to maintain social distancing practices and mask wearing.
“We all have COVID fatigue, we have quarantine fatigue, we have mask fatigue,” said Wisconsin DHS deputy secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk. “We’re all sick of it. But we have to keep doing this … Please, everyone keep taking these actions, so that that death rate doesn’t get even higher.”
Contact Matt Piper at (920) 810-7164 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @matthew_piper.