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On Monday, September 29, 2020, a sign is posted on the Marquette University campus on the corner of 15th and Wells Streets for COVID-19 awareness and testing. (Photo: Angela Peterson / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Milwaukee and Madison are no longer Wisconsin coronavirus hotspots.

As the state outbreak morphs into one of the nation’s worst, the rise in cases and hospitalizations in northeastern Wisconsin is unlike anything the region has experienced since the pandemic began.

Green Bay and Fox Valley area hospitals are close to capacity and local resources are strained due to the increase in cases at an almost exponential rate. Although growth slowed among college-age people, that gain was lost due to the rapid increase among other age groups.

“We can’t blame all college campuses,” said Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer at the University of Wisconsin Health.

Pothof believes that the early September surge in youth and epidemics on University of Wisconsin campuses may have given people in other parts of the state a false sense of security.

“People have started to think that, ‘as long as I’m not in a college town and I’m not a college student, things are fine,'” he said.

Young people in college towns continue to report high numbers of cases, but the outbreak has spread beyond campus communities, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Two weeks ago, people between the ages of 10 and 29 accounted for nearly half of new cases in the state. But last week, they made up just over a third.

And that age group actually reported fewer cases last week than the previous week, while middle-aged adults saw 45% to 55% more cases week over week.

The State Department of Health Services reported 1,726 new cases and 6,159 negative tests on Monday for a positive rate of 21.9%.

The average daily number of new cases over the past seven days is 2,155. On March 25, when Governor Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order went into effect, Wisconsin reported 192 new cases.

Tests are on the rise since spring – the state now regularly tests more than 10,000 people per day, compared to around 1,500 per day in late March – but the percentage of positive tests rarely exceeded 10% then.

The positivity rate has grown steadily since the beginning of September and the average for the past seven days has been 18.2%.

The state also reported two deaths, bringing the total to 1,283.

It all comes as President Donald Trump plans to hold demonstrations Saturday at Green Bay and La Crosse airports, an area that has the second highest infection rate in the country, according to an analysis by the New York Times. The Green Bay area has the sixth highest rate.

Trump airport rallies across the country have been characterized by little social distancing or the use of masks.

Outbreaks in the Green Bay, Appleton, and Oshkosh areas are driven by large gatherings such as weddings and parties, as well as varying degrees of masking, local health officials said.

Wisconsin residents may have “COVID fatigue,” tired of staying home and choosing to attend events and socialize normally, health officials said.

“This is no time to throw in the towel and say, ‘What the heck, I’m going to live my life,'” said Chris Woleske, CEO of Bellin Health.

Bellin Hospital, 744 S. Webster Ave., in Green Bay. (Photo: Sarah Kloepping / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

Pothof said some large gatherings can spread the virus to hundreds of people.

Even those living in small towns are not immune to the virus, he said – rural counties, northern Kewaunee and Shawano report the highest. case rates in the state, many times higher than in Milwaukee.

“The most important thing that needs to change is our behaviors,” Pothof said. “We’re really stuck with … the same tools we’ve had since March, which is masking, social distancing, good hygiene.”

Much of the Midwest is seeing a surge in cases as Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota join Wisconsin in massive case growth.

Over the past few days, Wisconsin has reported a higher daily case count than New York state, which is three times more populous and has about 800-900 new cases per day. Its positivity rate is around 1%.

And Florida, in the spotlight in recent months due to widespread epidemics, has an average positivity rate of just under 5%.

University campuses a first explanation for the increase

Cases in Wisconsin have been on the rise since the beginning of September, when colleges brought students back to campus, thought to be a prime explanation for the rise.

UW-Madison stopped in-person classes a week into the semester after more than 1,000 students were infected and other schools – including UW-La Crosse, UW-Eau Claire and Marquette University – quarantined dormitories in hopes of preventing the virus from spreading further.

But campuses aren’t the only flashpoints anymore.

For weeks, communities in Fox Valley and northeastern Wisconsin have been setting records and filling hospitals: Appleton, Green Bay, and the Oshkosh-Neenah area all rank among the nation’s top 10 metropolitan areas where outbreaks are the worst. , according to the New York Times.

Fox Valley is at a “critical level of infection,” Winnebago County health officials said. The county reports about 574 cases for every 100,000 residents. Milwaukee County, in comparison, reports a rate of 182.

And the growth is rapid. In Winnebago County, the 778 cases reported last week were more than double the previous week and more than five times the number three weeks ago, according to local health officials.

Winnebago County recorded 194 new cases in a single day on Thursday, the highest total since the pandemic began. The City of Appleton set a new record for weekly case counts for the fifth consecutive week, reporting 340 cases from September 21 through Saturday.

And on Friday, Brown County reported that nearly 30 percent of the tests came back positive.

Hospitals, overwhelmed contact detectors

Hospitals in the area have started to sound the alarm. In a press conference on Friday, Woleske said COVID patients occupy three-quarters of Bellin Hospital’s ICU beds and two-thirds of medical unit beds, about double the amount two weeks earlier.

Last week, Bellin’s emergency room was so overwhelmed that workers had to care for patients on stretchers in the corridor.

Coronavirus hospitalizations in Fox Valley are more than five times higher than a month ago. ThedaCare, which was able to accommodate all coronavirus patients at its Appleton hospital during the pandemic, is now planning to refer patients to Neenah and its critical access hospitals in Berlin, Shawano and Waupaca.

“If we don’t change something … we’re back to square one, where we were back in February and March, and actually probably a little worse than then,” CEO Imran Andrabi told Appleton Post Crescent.

Hospitals in the spring planned to expand their capacity to treat coronavirus patients, but many have since restarted non-emergency procedures, exacerbating the spatial problem some hospitals are now facing, Pothof said.

If the trends continue, the state’s health system will face the limits of its capabilities, he said.

“None of these plans are infinite. At some point, they all have an end point,” he said. “And if you get to these end points, that’s when bad things start happening to patients.”

And as cases accelerate, one of the main tools for stopping the spread becomes more difficult to implement.

Several health departments across the state reported that contact tracers, tasked with reaching infected people and identifying and tracking their closest contacts, were overwhelmed by the flurry of new cases to work on.

“Our goal is to reach all confirmed cases within 24 hours of being reported to the Health Department, but due to the current increase in cases we are days behind that goal,” the Winnebago County Department of Health wrote Thursday.

Tracers in Portage County, Outagamie County and Marathon County also reported being unable to keep up.

The key to getting around the current epidemic is getting the public to understand the severity of the virus and its widespread impact, Pothof said.

“The longer we go on, the gravity of those numbers and the historical nature of what we’re going through are starting to get lost a bit,” he said, “and people are starting to revert to their normal behaviors, which sadly allow for continued. spread and escalation (of the virus). “

Haley BeMiller of the Green Bay Press-Gazette contributed to this report.

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or scarson@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.

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