SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - A surge of coronavirus cases in Wisconsin and the Dakotas is forcing a scramble for hospital beds and raising political tensions, as the Upper Midwest and Plains emerge as one of the nation’s most troubling hot spots.
The three states now lead all others in new cases per capita, after months in which many residents and politicians shunned mask requirements while downplaying the risks of the disease.
It is increasingly apparent that those choices have come with costs.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster,” said Melissa Resch, a nurse at Wisconsin’s Aspirus Wausau Hospital, which is working to add beds and reassign staff to keep up with a rising caseload of virus patients, many gravely ill.
“Just yesterday I had a patient say, ’It’s OK, you guys took good care of me, but it’s OK to let me go,'” Resch said. “I’ve cried with the respiratory unit, I’ve cried with managers. I cry at home. I’ve seen nurses crying openly in the hallway.”
In North Dakota, which does not require residents to wear masks and whose 770 new cases per 100,000 residents are the highest in the country, 24 more virus deaths were reported Wednesday, triple the state’s previous single-day record.
“The reported number of deaths today is heartbreaking,” said state Health Department spokeswoman Nicole Peske said. “Unfortunately, the deaths and the increase in cases in long-term care are a direct reflection of what’s happening in the community.”
The efforts to combat the quickening spread of the virus in the Midwest and Plains states are starting to recall the scenes that have played out in other parts of the county over the past several months.
In the spring, New York City rushed to erect field hospitals as emergency rooms were flooded with desperately ill patients. Then, as Northeastern states got a handle on the outbreak, it spread to Sun Belt states like Arizona, Texas and California over the summer. It then moved into the Midwest.
In Wisconsin, health officials plan to open a field hospital next week at the state fairgrounds to prevent health care centers from being overwhelmed by virus cases, even as state Republicans challenge Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' mask mandate in court.
“We hoped this day wouldn’t come, but unfortunately, Wisconsin is in a much different, more dire place today, and our health care systems are beginning to become overwhelmed,” Evers said Wednesday.
In South Dakota, a small hospital with limited capacity to serve the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe transferred two virus patients out of state after administrators at 14 other facilities said they also were moving patients out.
That contradicted assurances by Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, whose plan for combating the virus has focused on increasing treatment capacity rather than preventing the infection.
“Even with the recent uptick of cases across the Midwest and South Dakota, only 10% of hospital capacity is taken up with COVID patients,” Noem said in an address to legislators on Monday.
But criticism of Noem, who has insisted since the spring that the spread of the disease was inevitable, is getting louder.
“It is the height of arrogance and ignorance for her to claim her inaction is a badge of honor,” state Democratic Party chairman Randy Seiler said.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Iowa, a report released Thursday concluded that “community transmission remained high across the state for the past month, with many preventable deaths.”
The report by the White House Coronavirus Task Force came a day after Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds urged state residents not to let the virus dominate their lives, echoing the words of President Donald Trump.
Reynolds, who has rejected health experts' repeated recommendations that people be required to wear masks, bristled Wednesday when asked why she hadn’t taken more steps to reduce virus spread.
“We are doing a lot, and I’m proud of what we’re doing, but you know what? Any death is one too many, and it’s heart-wrenching to see the numbers, but I have to balance a lot,” she said.
State health data posted Thursday showed over 1,500 new confirmed cases over the previous 24 hours in Iowa and a record 449 people hospitalized.
Nationwide, newly reported cases have risen in recent weeks to about 44,000 a day, and deaths are running at around 730 a day, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
While those numbers are down from the spring, when cases and deaths peaked at much higher levels, public health experts warn that infections are far too high as the nation moves toward flu season and colder weather that will send more people indoors, where the virus can spread more easily.
“We really need to figure out how to be engaged with one another socially but physically distant,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut. “I think that it’s going to be a critical message through the fall. It will protect us against flu, and it will protect us against COVID if we keep up those behaviors.”