‘Spring is coming. It’s been a year of coping with COVID-19’

By: - March 5, 2021 6:14 am

Wisconsin Deputy Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk speaks to reporters during a media briefing Thursday on COVID-19 vaccination. (YouTube Screen Capture)

With COVID-19 vaccinations soaring and new cases continuing to diminish, Julie Willems Van Dijk is urging Wisconsin residents to guard against one particular side effect: Covid fatigue.

“We are all tempted to just be done, right?” Van Dijk, Wisconsin deputy health secretary, said Thursday afternoon at the week’s second media briefing on the state’s COVID vaccination program.

“Spring is coming. It’s been a year of coping with COVID-19,” she said. “We are sick of staying home. We are sick of isolation. We are sick of wearing masks. We are sick of physical distancing. I know that — I know that.”

But, she warned, “we’re just not quite ready to let go of those protective behaviors.”

Not ready, because of the numbers — numbers that look good, but continue to harbor the quietest of alarms.

On Thursday, the state Department of Health Services (DHS) reported 677 new confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of Thursday, the average number of daily new cases over the last seven days was 522 — down for the fourth day in a row.

It signaled a welcome change. Starting Feb. 21, that seven-day-average measure, which had been descending steadily since early January, flattened out for eight worrisome days — something that Van Dijk had taken note of earlier this week.

Another number: positivity rate — the percentage of tests that turn up positive out of a day’s worth of all the tests given for the coronavirus. As with new cases, public health statistics analysts rely on a seven-day average to smooth out day-to-day variations and get a clearer picture of the overall trend.

Wisconsin’s seven-day-average positivity rate peaked at 17.6% on Nov. 12 — the height of the state’s worst COVID-19 surge to date. On Wednesday, March 3, it was 2.3%.

But Wednesday’s number was the second day of an uptick; two days before, the rate was 2.1%. Two percentage points just might be whispering a warning.

“You know, that’s how a surge starts,” Van Dijk said Thursday. “It doesn’t go from zero to 5,000, like this” — here the deputy health secretary swept a hand into the air. “It goes a little bit, a little bit, a little bit” — now, she raised her hand in steps — “and then all of a sudden you look back and you’re like, ‘Wow, this has really increased dramatically.’ And so we’re watching every day.”

Some trends are positive, starting with the general downward trajectory of the disease that resumed this week.

For months DHS has been posting county-by-county data, updated weekly, on the level of COVID-19 in the state, and for months the numbers have shown the virus to be everywhere, at levels that were high and even, for much of the state, ‘critically high.’

Now, in this week’s update, four Wisconsin counties — Douglas, Marinette, Taylor and Marquette — for the first time showed fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 people over two weeks, the benchmark for ‘low disease activity.’

COVID-19 cases are down in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, underscoring the effectiveness of the vaccine. “Disease level and immunization coverage go hand-in-hand in order for us to make the decision about when it’s going to be safe to retreat back from things like the mask mandate,” Van Dijk said.

Nearly 1.6 million doses have been given, and nearly 1 million people have gotten at least a first dose of one of the two-dose vaccines available. More than 550,000 Wisconsin residents have completed the vaccine series so far.

Plans that local school districts have submitted to vaccinate their staffs have won the approval of DHS, and the majority of K-12 staff and teachers will be able to get a vaccine this month, according to DHS.

After a one-day delay to fix its waiting list feature, the state’s online vaccine sign-up registry has gone live. The online utility is starting with Green, Rock and La Crosse counties and being tested in Marathon and Oneida counties as well as the city of Wauwatosa.

DHS also announced Thursday a new hotline — 844-684-1064 — for residents to call for information about vaccine locations, help with using the online registry and other vaccine information. The hotline is managed under contract by two call-center contractors and funded by the CDC as part of a national program.

At the same time, however, more new cases of the COVID-19 variant first identified in England, known as B.1.1.7, have been identified.

The mutant variety of the virus has been identified in 19 tests of state residents, Van Dijk said. Only a fraction of tests undergo the additional genetic analysis required to detect the variant, however. “So there could be far more than 19,” she warned. “And the issue with these variants is that they are much more effective at transmitting disease from person to person.”

And there, she said, lies the danger.

“You can even be doing all of the good protective behaviors, but you just have a little lapse — take your mask off, don’t wash your hands, stand too close to someone.” And if you get exposed to someone infected with the variant, “you’re more likely to get COVID-19.”

And so, she reiterated, people need to press on — physically distancing and maintaining social circles that are as small as possible.

“If you want to see friends and family, please go outside and see them,” Van Dijk said. “We know transmission is much less outside, and it’s going to be a beautiful weekend. So visit with your family outside, not inside and keep six feet apart. And if we can do that for another couple of months, while we ramp up vaccines and get our coverage of people much higher, we’re going to be in much better shape.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to state that 1.6 million doses of vaccine have been administered in Wisconsin, not that 1.6 million people have received at least one dose.

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Erik Gunn
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.