Pandemic risks overwhelming Wisconsin as New York 'hot spots' heat up

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wisconsin, where U.S. President Donald Trump will hold rallies over the weekend, registered a record increase in new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, while New York state reported a worrisome uptick of positive coronavirus tests in 20 ‘hot spots.’

Naomi Hassebroek accompanies her daughter Lydia and classmate Emmanuelle Michalski-Ratcliffe on the subway ride to their first day of in person school at I.S. 318, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brooklyn, New York, U.S. October 1, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

The 3,000 new infections reported in Wisconsin fanned fears that the sheer number of new patients could overwhelm hospitals. Florida, which has four times as many people as Wisconsin, reported 2,628 new cases on Thursday.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued an emergency order easing licensing rules in a bid to bolster the number of healthcare workers able to deal with the mounting crisis.

“Our emergency department has had several instances in the past week where it was past capacity and needed to place patients in beds in the hallways,” Bellin Health, which runs a hospital in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said in a statement. Its intensive care unit has been full, or nearly full, for a week, it said.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said the state’s outbreak started in younger people and has now spread through the community.

“Public gatherings of any kind are dangerous right now, more so than they have been at any time during this epidemic,” he told CNN on Thursday.

Signs that the pandemic is getting worse in the Upper Midwest abound. Wisconsin and North Dakota both reported a record number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Thursday, while South Dakota also reported a record number of new cases.

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New cases of COVID-19 rose in 27 out of 50 U.S. states in September compared with August, with an increase of 111% in Wisconsin, according to a Reuters analysis.

In New York, which grappled with the world’s most rampant outbreak earlier this the year, officials said they were worried about clusters of cases in 20 areas across the state, where the average rate of positive tests rose to 6.5% from 5.5% the day before.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy encouraged residents to download onto their smartphones a new voluntary contact-tracing app launched on Thursday. The app, COVID Alert, uses Bluetooth technology to tell users if they have recently been near someone who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

Many of New York’s 20 hot spots - half of which are in New York City - include Orthodox Jewish communities. Cuomo said he talked to community leaders about enforcing social distancing measures.

“A cluster today can become community spread tomorrow,” Cuomo said on a briefing call with reporters. “These zip codes are not hermetically sealed.”

He implored local authorities to increase enforcement measures. “If they’re not wearing masks, they should be fined,” Cuomo said.

Wisconsin health officials are urging residents to stay home and avoid large gatherings ahead of Trump’s weekend rallies in Janesville and Green Bay in the run up to the Nov. 3 election.

An indoor Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June likely contributed to a subsequent rise in cases there, city health officials have said.

Beyond the Midwest, western states are also facing spikes in coronavirus cases. Montana on Thursday reported a record increase in cases for the second day in a row and had a record number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani in New York and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Rosalba O’Brien