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.