By CHEYENNE HASLETT and SOO RIN KIM, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump will hold more large-scale campaign rallies in Wisconsin this weekend as coronavirus cases and hospitalization rage across the battleground state.
Wisconsin, which is a must-win state in the president’s path to victory, is in the midst of an alarming surge of coronavirus cases just a month before the election — an unprecedented political curveball that could alter Wisconsin voters’ opinions on who they trust to handle the pandemic, as more are personally impacted by the virus.
The surge also comes as 1.2 million Wisconsinites have already started the voting process by mail, momentum which Trump aims to capitalize on when he visits Saturday.
The president is scheduled to make his third visit to Wisconsin over the past couple months, this time in La Crosse and Green Bay — but his visit also comes at odds with the advice of his own White House Coronavirus Task Force, which has just classified the cities as “red zones” in a new report. The report urged for “the maximum degree possible” of social distancing in the state.
In the past week, the state has reported nearly 16,000 new cases, compared to just over 5,000 new cases reported in the last week of August. Last Saturday alone, the state reported close to 3,000 new cases.
Hospitalizations have also been on the rise, and the Wisconsin Health Department reported that 82% of hospital beds across the state are in capacity as of Tuesday. In Green Bay, where the president is headed, one health system reportedly said this week that its hospital there was at 94% capacity.
The Saturday visit will come after Trump’s large rallies sparked one of numerous contentious moments during the first presidential debate Tuesday night.
Asked about his decision to continue to hold large-scale, mostly maskless campaign rallies in the middle of the pandemic, Trump said he has held them outside and that there has been “no problem whatsoever.” Actually though, it’s been confirmed that he has held at least one indoor rally this year and multiple coronavirus cases have been linked to his past rallies.
“So far, we’ve had no problem whatsoever,” the president assured during the debate. “It’s outside. That’s a big difference, according to experts. We do them outside. We have tremendous crowds as you see.”
During a press conference on Tuesday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said that the president should either not visit the Wisconsin cities that are seeing a high rate of coronavirus activities, or encourage his supporters to wear masks.
“The president could do two things: One is maybe not come to these two municipalities and cities that are ranked right up towards the top of all the places in the country,” Evers said. “The second thing that could be done is for him to insist that if people are there, they wear a mask. He can make that happen. He could wear one too. Those are the two things that he could do to make sure that it doesn’t become a superspreader event.”
La Crosse and Green Bay are both strategic visits for Trump, who is trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Wisconsin despite his upset win in 2016, when he narrowly eked out a victory against Hillary Clinton to become the first Republican presidential nominee to win the state since 1984.
Of the two cities, Green Bay carries particularly higher stakes for the president, as he needs to maintain his solid support there from 2016 if he’s going to be able to combat the expected blue wave from Wisconsin’s cities of Madison and Milwaukee.
But both are key spots to hit based on “the math they know they need to be set up to win Wisconsin,” said Bill McCoshen, a veteran Republican consultant in Wisconsin who’s long had a hand in state politics.
Simply put, even with the surge in coronavirus cases, “Trump needs to come here because he’s still behind here and he has to win Wisconsin,” McCoshen said.
“Just because there’s a pandemic doesn’t mean the campaign ceases to exist. I mean, he’s gotta campaign. It’s up to the voter to choose whether or not they want to participate in these events,” McCoshen added.
But McCoshen acknowledged that the campaign would be “wise” to encourage that the president’s crowds heed public health guidance.
“You can’t tell people not to participate in democracy, but you can tell them to be smart about it,” he said. “Social distance if you can, if you can’t please wear a mask, bring hand sanitizer and have fun.”
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has rated both Brown County, where Green Bay sits, and La Crosse County as “very high” coronavirus activity levels. The two cities have also been ranked as the fourth and eighth metropolitan areas in the country for new cases per capita over the last two weeks, according to The New York Times. Oshkosh-Neenah and Appleton, Wisconsin, ranked second and third.
In the past week, Brown County has reported nearly four times the number of cases since late August, while La Crosse County reported more than 800 cases in the third week of September, compared to just 80 cases around the same time last month. Cases have continued to rage throughout La Crosse County this week.
On Tuesday, County Public Health Officer Anna Destree sent a letter to the Trump campaign and the airport asking to follow safety guidelines at the rally, such as social distancing of at least 6 feet and mandatory face coverings indoors.
Claire Paprocki, a spokesperson for Brown County Public Health, told ABC News that the county is “very concerned with the recent surge of positive cases of COVID-19, not only in our community but in our region as well.”
“Our understanding is that the White House Advance Team is aware of the situation with COVID-19 in our community and they are taking the president’s trip very seriously,” Paprocki said.
But Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer, warned in a press conference on Tuesday that the stakes are incredibly high, not just for La Crosse and Green Bay, but for the whole state, which is teetering on the brink of overwhelmed hospitals.
The entire state of Wisconsin is experiencing a “generalized epidemic” and has “exceeded the capacity of local health departments to do contact tracing to everyone who needs it,” Westergaard said.
“The level of transmission we have right now is outstripping our ability to do that, which means that it’s safe to assume that the virus is everywhere,” Westergaard said. He pleaded for Wisconsin residents to “change their behavior” entirely.
Wisconsin is now on the list of states where every single county statewide has had more than 100 cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks, according to a Federal Emergency Management System’s daily report dated Sept. 29.
Wisconsin was seeing a steady decline in coronavirus cases in late summer until cases started going back up rapidly in early September.
The recent surge coincided with the two-week period after Trump’s Wisconsin visit in Oshkosh on Aug. 17, where tens of thousands of mostly maskless supporters gathered outdoors.
But Wisconsin Health Department spokesperson Elizabeth Goodsitt told ABC News that only one case has been linked to the Oshkosh event, and it was impossible to know whether the patient contracted the virus before, during or after the rally. No cases were linked to Trump’s second Wisconsin visit in Mosinee, Marathon County, on Sept. 18, or Biden’s visit to Manitowoc on Sept. 21, though it’s too soon to tell, she said.
Goodsitt said one possible explanation for the recent surge in coronavirus cases across the state could be the reopening of colleges and a spread among college students. According to the state’s data, there was a significant jump in cases among people ages 18 to 24 in late August and early September, followed by a gradual surge among other age groups.
As ABC News previously reported, after Trump’s very first rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20, the city county health director there said the rally “more than likely contributed” to the surge of cases that followed in the area soon after. Eight of Trump’s campaign staffers also tested positive for COVID-19 later that month, with two of them receiving positive results after attending the same Tulsa rally, the Trump campaign confirmed to ABC News.
Since then, only a handful of coronavirus cases have been linked to Trump’s rallies that have taken place in the past two months, and more broadly, no major outbreaks have been directly connected to the rallies.
But repeatedly, local public health officials have warned that it’s hard to tell how accurate their data is, since it’s self-reported.
“Keep in mind that we only know what people tell us,” said Minnesota Human Services Department spokesperson David Verhasselt after Trump visited there last month. “So it is possible we are seeing cases in individuals who choose not to fully declare their activities. We just don’t know what people don’t tell us.”
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