But those states are not seeing what Wisconsin is now. Cases are popping up in too many places, and among too many different age groups, to be blamed on college kids. In fact, every age group except 18-to-24-year-olds has seen cases rise this week, according to official data. “There’s a surge happening in cases across the state, for the most part,” Ajay Sethi, an epidemiology professor at the University of Wisconsin, told me.
Any coronavirus outbreak is bad news, but a surge in Wisconsin, at this moment, would be particularly awful. The problem is one of both political geography and poor timing. Wisconsin could determine the outcome of the presidential election: The state went for President Donald Trump in 2016 by only 22,748 votes, and both Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have campaigned there this month. The election is little more than a month away, and if the threat of infection scares Wisconsinites away from polling places, the outbreak could play a role in who wins the state.
But this is also a bad time for any state to have an outbreak. As my colleague Alexis C. Madrigal and I wrote this month, the pandemic has become harder to track in the United States. Nationwide, the results of some new types of COVID-19 tests are not being consistently reported to local governments. In Wisconsin, testing has declined from its peak: The state reports fewer coronavirus tests a day now than it did in late July. This means that metrics that proved useful during the Sun Belt surge this summer, such as the percentage of tests that come back positive, have become less reliable. And this, in turn, has made it harder for officials and experts to forecast how large of an outbreak a state might be facing before the corresponding spikes in cases and hospitalizations.
In Wisconsin, neither of those numbers looks good. The Badger State is seeing an explosive rise in cases: On September 1, it reported an average of about 750 new coronavirus cases a day; now it reports more than 2,000 a day. Wisconsin has reported nearly as many new cases per capita this week as Texas and Georgia did at the peak of their outbreaks this summer, according to the CDC.
At the same time, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Wisconsin has more than doubled since the month began. “The surges are in Green Bay, in northeastern Wisconsin, and there’s a little evidence of an uptick in Milwaukee,” Sethi said. “A lot of these counties are where older individuals live, on average.”
But the state is not doomed to becoming the next Arizona, and it has already had some success halting the spread of the virus. After the University of Wisconsin at Madison shut down in-person classes earlier this month, case counts plummeted across the state. (The school is now loosening those restrictions.) Nationwide, many colleges and universities have successfully kept the virus in check through frequent testing and mask requirements.