A month on from its reopening, the dire predictions for Wisconsin are looking very wrong indeed

Wisconsin reopens, dire predictions

On May 13th, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order. We were told that Bad Things would follow.

As Dan O’Donnell writes for the MacIver Institute:

“We’re the Wild West,” Evers told MSNBC just hours after the Supreme Court struck down his “Safer at Home” order on May 13th and people flocked to the few bars that immediately reopened. “There is nothing that’s compelling people to do anything other than having chaos here.”

“This turns the state to chaos,” Evers said in a conference call with local reporters that same evening. “People will get sick. And the Republicans own the chaos.”

“Chaos it was,” The Washington Post dutifully echoed.  “It’s a situation unlike any in the United States as the pandemic rages on. But most of all, Evers feared that the court’s order would cause the one thing he was trying to prevent: more death.”

More death, Wisconsin was repeatedly assured, was an absolute certainty.

“This action will inevitably lead to more sickness and more death,” insisted longtime Democratic attorney Michael Maistelman, who has occasionally represented Evers. “The court will have blood on their hands and the people of Wisconsin will not forget.”

“This is dangerous madness,” tweeted Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler.  “No matter where you live, the nightmare Republicans inflict here may soon arrive at your door.”

So despondent was The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel over the devastation that the ruling was sure to cause that it wrote a rare editorial literally begging its readers to save us all.

“It’s up to us,” the paper wrote on May 14th, the day after the decision was published.  “We can’t count on our elected representatives to work together for the public good in Wisconsin. They have proven themselves utterly incapable of compromising even in an emergency to come up with a sensible plan to protect the health of our most vulnerable friends, neighbors and family members.”

Unfortunately, without the protection of a lockdown order, Governor Evers predicted that there was simply nothing anyone could do.

“We’re going to have more cases,” he said.  “We’re going to have more deaths. And it’s a sad occasion for the state. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am.”

In USA Today, Christian Schneider wrote: “Wisconsin’s economy is reopening and it’s a hot coronavirus mess. Don’t do what we did.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision drew comment here in Minnesota. Ken Martin, Chair of the Minnesota DFL, tweeted:

Version 3 of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Model, produced by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Department of Health assumes a latent period of 5.2 days and an infectious period of 7.8 days. That means that we should have started seeing these dire outcomes at most 13 days after the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down its verdict, so by May 27th. At the time of writing (June 9th), we have data for the 27 days subsequent to May 13th. If these dire predictions are coming true, we should be seeing it by now. We aren’t.

More tests mean more cases, but not more acute cases

It is true that we have seen more cases since the Court’s verdict, but this is a result of more testing, not necessarily of increased spread of Covid-19.

Data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, shown in Figure 1, tells us that for the 27 days prior to and including May 13th, the Badger State conducted an average of 3,080 Covid-19 tests a day and the average rate of positive results was 8.9%. In the 27 days after May 13th, it has averaged 8,908 Covid-19 tests a day with an average rate of positive results of 4.6%. This is why you should be very skeptical indeed when you see reports of ‘spikes’ or ‘surges’ in cases. In reality, they are ‘spikes’ and ‘surges’ in testing more often than not.

Figure 1: Daily Covid-19 tests and % of tests positive in Wisconsin

Source: Wisconsin Department of Health Services

In many cases these tests are turning up cases which are ‘asymptomatic’, where the infected person wouldn’t know they had Covid-19 until the test told them so. These people are only a problem insofar as they spread the disease to others and there appears to be some confusion among experts about how much of a problem this is. They do not themselves put pressure on the health system so we can worry a little less about these cases.

If we assume that people who become particularly ill with Covid-19 will find their way to hospital independent of testing, then the rate of hospitalizations might give us a good idea of the changing prevalence of the disease. But here again, we see no surge after the Court’s verdict, as Figure 2 shows. Covid-19 hospitalizations rose until the end of May, as they were already doing, and have fallen steeply since then. The uptick since June 7th could be cause for concern assuming it continues, but, given the lag, it would be difficult to blame this on the Court decision.

Figure 2: Covid-19 patients hospitalized in Wisconsin 

Source: Wisconsin Department of Health Services

When Gov. Evers said “We’re going to have more cases” he was right in terms of total cases detected, but not in terms of acute cases.

No ‘surge’ in Covid-19 deaths in Packer country

Gov. Evers also warned: “We’re going to have more deaths.” And it is true that, since May 13th, 243 Wisconsin residents have died from Covid-19.

But they have not died at a rate much greater since May 13th than they did before it. As Figure 3 shows, for the 27 days prior to and including May 13th the Badger State averaged 8 Covid-19 deaths a day. In the 28 days since, it has averaged 9 Covid-19 deaths a day. An increase, but not a ‘surge’.

Figure 3: Covid-19 deaths per day in Wisconsin

Source: Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Indeed, for those who like to compare the two states, the records of Wisconsin and Minnesota on this score are striking. Since May 13th, Wisconsin has suffered 240 Covid-19 deaths; Minnesota has had 579 – 2.4 times as many. Given the state’s broadly similar populations – 5.6 million in Minnesota and 5.8 million in Wisconsin – that means a much higher rate of Covid-19 deaths in the Gopher State as well as a much higher number. As Figure 4 shows that, since May 13th, Wisconsin has seen 41 Covid-19 deaths per million residents; for Minnesota, the figure is 103 deaths per million residents – a rate 2.5 times higher.

Figure 4: Covid-19 deaths per million residents

Source: Wisconsin Department of Health Services and Minnesota Department of Health

A new paper from the NBER asks: ‘Did the Wisconsin Supreme Court Restart a COVID-19 Epidemic?‘ It finds:

…no evidence that the repeal of the state SIPO impacted social distancing, COVID-19 cases, or COVID-19-related mortality during the fortnight following enactment. Estimated effects were economically small and nowhere near statistically different from zero. 

 

Conclusion

Gov. Walz tells us that he needs to keep his emergency powers to protect us from Covid-19. How, then, is he managing to produce outcomes so much worse than in Wisconsin, where Gov. Evers’ “Safer at Home” order was junked a month ago? We are incurring all the costs of Gov. Walz’ aimless knob twiddling without any positive results to show for it.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.