Tensions rise as virus cases surge in Wisconsin, Dakotas
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - An increase in coronavirus cases in Wisconsin and the Dakotas forces battle over hospital beds and political tensions as the upper Midwest and plains become one of the most troubling hot spots in the country.
The three states now lead all others in new cases per capita after months of many politicians and residents shunning mask requirements while downplaying the risks of the disease, which has now killed over 210,000 Americans.
"It's an emotional roller coaster ride," said Melissa Resch, a nurse at Aspirus Wausau Hospital in Wisconsin who is working on adding beds and reallocating staff to keep up with the growing numbers of virus patients, many of whom are seriously ill.
"Just yesterday I had a patient say," It's okay, you took good care of me, but it's okay to let me go, "said Resch." I cried with the breathing unit, I talked to managers cried. I cry at home. I've seen nurses cry openly in the hallway. "
Efforts to combat the accelerating spread of the virus in the Midwest and the plains are reminiscent of the scenes that have played out in other parts of the country in recent months.
In the spring, New York City rushed to build field hospitals as the emergency rooms were flooded with desperately ill patients. As the northeastern states got the outbreak under control, it spread to sunbelt states like Arizona, Texas, and California during the summer. It then moved to the Midwest.
"What worries me is that we haven't learned our lessons," said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. He cited data compiled by Premise that showed mask usage of 39% in Wisconsin and 45% in Dakotas, both below the US average of 50%.
“People have given up their vigilance. They said, "We're not. They're big cities," Mokdad said, "but at some point it will spread like any other virus. Nobody lives in a bubble in this country."
In North Dakota, where residents do not have to wear masks and whose 770 new cases per 100,000 people are the highest in the country, an additional 24 deaths were reported Wednesday, tripling the state's three-day record.
"The number of deaths reported today is heartbreaking," said Nicole Peske, spokeswoman for the health ministry. "Unfortunately, the deaths and the rise in long-term care cases directly reflect what is happening in the community."
In Wisconsin, health officials plan to open a field hospital on the state fairgrounds next week to keep health centers from being overwhelmed by virus cases even if the state's Republicans challenge Democratic Governor Tony Evers' mask mandate in court.
"We were hoping that day wouldn't come, but unfortunately, Wisconsin is in a very different, worse place today and our health systems are starting to get overwhelmed," said Evers.
South Dakota reported Thursday with 14 records for active cases, hospitalizations and new deaths. A small hospital serving the Sioux tribe of the Cheyenne River discharged two virus patients from the state after administrators at 14 other facilities indicated they were also evicting patients.
This contradicted the assurances made by Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican whose plan to fight the virus was to increase treatment capacity rather than prevent infection. Noem, who has insisted since the spring that the spread of the disease was inevitable, has come under increasing criticism.
"It is the height of arrogance and ignorance for them to claim that their inaction is a badge of honor," said Randy Seiler, leader of the Democratic Party.
Despite the rising numbers, Kathleen Taylor of Redfield, South Dakota said she sees a lot of apathy in the community of approximately 2,300. The city had been largely spared from the pandemic for months. But now, she said, she knows 14 people who have tested positive.
"I watch the governor tell people how great we are and how it has worked to rely on people's sense of responsibility," said Taylor, a 67-year-old writer. "Then I'll go into town and see maybe three people wearing masks and no one standing back."
Iowa reported over 1,500 new confirmed cases in the past 24 hours and a record 449 people hospitalized on Thursday. A report by the White House coronavirus task force on Thursday said the state had high levels of transmission of the virus with "many preventable deaths" over the past month.
The report came a day after Republican Governor Kim Reynolds urged residents not to let the virus dominate their lives and reiterated President Donald Trump's words. Reynolds, who has dismissed repeated recommendations from health experts that people should wear masks, bristled on Wednesday when asked why she hadn't done more to reduce the spread of viruses.
"We do a lot and I'm proud of what we do, but you know what? Every death is one too many and it's heartbreaking to see the numbers, but I have to balance a lot," she said.
Nationwide, newly reported cases have risen to about 44,000 per day in the past few weeks, and the number of deaths is about 700 per day, according to a record by Johns Hopkins University.
While those numbers have been down from spring, when cases and deaths peaked at much higher levels, public health experts warn that infections are way too high as the nation approaches flu season and colder weather the longer Send people indoors where the virus can spread more easily.
"We really need to figure out how to be socially but physically far apart," said Dr. Deborah Birx, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, in Hartford, Connecticut on Thursday. "I think it will be a critical message in the fall. It will protect us from the flu and it will protect us from COVID if we keep these behaviors."
Geller reported from New York. Associate Press Writer Wayne Parry in Atlantic City, New Jersey; David Pitt in Des Moines; Carla K. Johnson in Washington State; Todd Richmond of Madison, Wisconsin; Dave Kolpack in Fargo, North Dakota; and Susan Haigh of Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this story.
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