‘We are not out of the woods yet’

Many COVID-19 numbers are getting better, making a potential new surge even more dangerous

A doctor giving an elderly man a shot in the arm for a vaccine
Vaccination by Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin, much of the news is getting better — but public health specialists say we need to remain vigilant.

Case numbers and deaths are down in the state. Vaccinations are up, and vaccine supplies are increasing. More vaccine providers are coming on board, and by early March, local public health departments hope to start signing up people online to get their shots.

But that is no reason to be complacent, according to health practitioners. The prospects for a setback — possibly a severe one — remain.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer with the Dept. of Health Services and UW Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine. (Photo: UW-Madison faculty)
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer with the Dept. of Health Services and UW Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine. (Photo: UW-Madison faculty)

“We have made a lot of progress,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard at a recent media briefing held by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). “But we’re also highly vulnerable to some of that progress being undone if we take our foot off the gas — if we let the virus spread.”

Simple complacency isn’t the only hazard. New variants of the coronavirus — variants that spread much more easily than the first one — have begun appearing in the state as in the rest of the country. Already they are being transmitted through community spread, meaning that public health workers can’t tell how they have arrived.

There are other concerns as well. Black, brown and Indigenous people and low-income populations who have long been left behind when it comes to health care remain disproportionately afflicted with COVID-19, and they are still behind the rest of the population in access to the vaccine.

Still, by many measures, the numbers that gauge COVID-19 are showing promise.

On Thursday, Feb. 18, the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases reported by DHS stood at 733. The average number of new cases over the last seven days is 658. New daily cases were last in that territory in late August, according to data reported by DHS.

Wisconsin Deputy Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk (YouTube screen capture)

The last time case numbers like those appeared, “we were horrified by them, because we were on the upsurge,” said DHS Deputy Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk at a media briefing Thursday. “And we could tell they were growing every day. They look a lot better when you’re on the down surge, but they’re still terribly high.”

The number of new deaths has also fallen; DHS reported 18 as of Thursday, bringing the statewide total to 6,232.

Hospitalizations for the virus are down sharply as well. The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported there were 388 inpatients with the virus as of Thursday, including 107 in intensive care. Those numbers are down from mid-November peaks of 2,227 inpatients and 456 in ICUs.

‘Doing the right thing’

The downward trends have been underway since before the December holidays. Vaccines — which so far have only been given to select groups of people, including health care workers, people 65 and older, and a handful of others — may account for a small portion of the shift, said Westergaard, who is the chief medical officer in the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases. But, he suggested, people’s behavior has probably made a bigger difference.

“People have gotten into a groove and are doing the right thing in terms of restricting gatherings and wearing masks,” Westergaard told reporters. And as new cases have declined, he added, there’s been “a positive feedback loop” that has made case investigation and contact tracing easier.

When cases surged in November, local health departments’ contact tracing efforts were overwhelmed. With declining case numbers and having learned greater efficiency in the tracing process, “we’re actually better able to respond to local clusters for local cases than we were before,” Westergaard added.

Meanwhile, vaccinations have increased statewide after a rollout hampered by limited supplies. As of Wednesday, Feb. 17, 1 million Wisconsin residents had received at least a first shot in the two-shot series, including more than 40% of people age 65 or older. Nearly 290,000 people in the state have gotten a second dose as well.

“We are on a roll,” said Van Dijk at a media briefing Thursday on the state’s vaccine progress.

Even with those milestones, vaccine distribution has continued to fall short of the demand. The timetable for vaccinating everyone in the state depends on how much vaccine the federal government ships, Van Dijk said.

Wisconsin’s vaccine allotment is improving. The state has been told it will get 115,000 first doses to distribute each week for the next three weeks — a 64% increase from its weekly shipments in mid-January. That doesn’t include another 18,000 doses a week going to Walgreens drugstores in the states that, like the state’s allotment, will be reserved for frontline health care workers; police, fire and corrections staff; and people 65 and older.

The additional supplies heading to the state still only represent about one-third of the demand for the vaccine. In the last week, state vaccine providers had asked for 350,000 doses. Most have only gotten 25% to 30% of what they have requested, Van Dijk said.

Next in line for shots

The state is projecting that the next group of people in the priority list for shots — educators, food service workers, utility workers and other essential workers — will be able to start getting vaccines after March 1.

By then, DHS is planning to roll out an online portal, using software developed by Microsoft and to be distributed to local health departments.  The software sign-up will include screening questions to ascertain eligibility for the vaccine based on the state’s priority list and enable people who are in line for the shot to make an appointment when it is their turn.

Among the challenges that remain has been a disparity in who gets the vaccine.

COVID-19 has hit Black people harder, nationally and in Wisconsin, whether measured by its impact on health or on economic conditions. Yet they have also been the least-vaccinated group so far. While 12% of white Wisconsin residents have gotten at least one shot, just 3.6% of Black residents have, according to data reported by DHS. Similarly, 12.8% of non-Hispanic Wisconsin residents have begun vaccination, compared with 3.5% of Hispanic residents.

The agency is working on ways to increase vaccinations in “places that are lagging behind,” Van Dijk added — which include urban neighborhoods, but also “a number of rural communities.”

And still lurking, but drawing closer, are the variant strains of the virus. On Thursday, Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) reported that a county resident had been confirmed to have the B.1.1.7 strain that was first widely reported in England — at least the third instance of that variant detected in the state, according to public health reports.

The Dane County case occurred in someone with “no recent travel history outside of Dane County,” the agency reported in a statement.  

“While this is the first time sequencing has confirmed the strain here, we’ve been operating under the assumption that the variant is present, and that is why we continue to stress that people not let their guard down,” stated the health department’s director, Janel Heinrich.

Because of the emerging strains and their more contagious nature, public health officials say it is critically important to continue to observe strong prevention methods: Wearing masks that fit snugly around the mouth nose and chin to prevent the spread of virus-laden droplets (or double masking), washing hands frequently and thoroughly, staying at least 6 feet apart from other people outside a shared household and avoiding gatherings.

Speaking with reporters at a Feb. 9 DHS media briefing, Westergaard emphasized the importance of continued caution.

“We should be vigilant and really take seriously the risk that an additional wave of infection could occur, that we are not out of the woods yet,” he said. “The novel variants are a big part of why we need to remain vigilant.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.