By Shereen Siewert

Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday told reporters extending the state’s mask mandate past the Nov. 21 expiration date if the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage out of control in Wisconsin.

“We’re keeping a close eye on it,” Evers said. “Anything is on the table.

The mandate has prompted several lawsuits, but to date state lawmakers have not met to repeal the governor’s order themselves. The Legislature’s refusal to end the state of emergency was cited as a reason the mandate was upheld by Polk County Circuit Judge Michael Waterman, who upheld the order after the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sued to block the action.

“The Legislature can end the state of emergency at anytime, but so far, it has declined to do so,” Waterman said at the time.

The mandate relies on a state law that empowers governors to declare 60-day public health emergencies in Wisconsin, different from the law Evers used earlier this year to issue the “Safer at Home” order struck down in May by the state Supreme Court.

The disclosure came as the state grapples with high positivity rates and soaring numbers of coronavirus infections, straining hospital resources. During a news conference Thursday, Aspirus Wausau Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ryan Andrews said 63 beds are dedicated to COVID-19 at the Wausau location, up from 20 one month ago. System-wide, Aspirus has 98 COVID-19 beds. Though the number of beds is locally manageable at this time, staffing remains a challenge as more personnel are exposed or infected, he said.

Marathon County reported 160 new infections on Thursday and one additional death.

In late March, projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent global health research center at the University of Washington, prompted widespread skepticism with a report that projected more than 850 people would likely die in Wisconsin due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Scare tactics!” one reader posted on Facebook.

“SMH,” another wrote. “Fake news. This will all go away before the election.”

But today, seven months later, 1,703 residents have died in the state and the IHME is now projecting the virus will prove fatal to a total of 6,439 people in Wisconsin by Feb. 1. IHME produced forecasts that show hospital bed use, need for intensive care beds, and ventilator use due to COVID-19 based on projected deaths for all 50 U.S. states. They were developed to provide hospitals, policy makers, and the public with crucial information about how expected need aligns with existing resources, so that cities and states can best prepare.

Wisconsin recorded its highest one-day total of new COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday and the first patient was admitted to a field hospital near Milwaukee that opened last week to help hospitals coping with the influx of patients.

While COVID-19 is sending even young, previously healthy people to the intensive care unit, older adults are at greatest risk of both severe disease and long-term impairment, says Sharon Inouye, a geriatrician at Harvard Medical School’s Hebrew SeniorLife health care system.

“It’s taken us a long, long time to [develop] some best practices for geriatric care in the hospital and ICU, and I just see all of that being eroded during this crisis,” Inouye said.

As of Oct. 15 a total of 216,025 deaths from COVID-19 have been reported in the United States. Scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say this might underestimate the total impact of the pandemic on mortality.

CDC officials say a better measure is to look at the number of excess deaths, or the number of people who have died from all causes, in excess of the expected number of deaths for a given place and time. From Jan. 26 through Oct. 3, 2020, an estimated 299,028 more persons than expected have died in the United States.