Battling ‘a sneaky, tricky virus’ with vaccines and public health measures

Deputy DHS secretary speaks on the latest pandemic news, good and bad

Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), spoke and answered reporters' questions Monday in an event sponsored by the Milwaukee Press Club and WisPolitics.com. (Screen capture | YouTube)

More than a million Wisconsin residents — one out of six — has been completely vaccinated for COVID-19, the state’s No. 2 health officer said Monday, and it’s likely that everyone in the state who isn’t already eligible for the shot will become eligible before May 1.

At the same time, however, warned Julie Willems Van Dijk, the number of new infections every day from the coronavirus is continuing to rise — and with it, the risk that some of them could be from mutant variants that spread more easily and may affect younger people more severely than the original strain.

“This virus has been a sneaky, tricky virus since the very beginning,” said Van Dijk, the deputy secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). She spoke in a one-hour question and answer session with reporters held virtually over Zoom and sponsored by the Milwaukee Press Club and wispolitics.com.

Van Dijk acknowledged a mixture of hope and apprehension when asked whether she thought the worst of the pandemic might be over.

“I am hopeful if we could all band together and do this combination of getting vaccinated and continuing to use preventive measures, we can stall the reproduction” of the virus, she said. The potential to staunch that rapid spread — which if unchecked can spawn new strains — “gives me great hope.”

But she also described “a little piece” of her “that is very scared that, if we get a variant of this disease that particularly is lethal to young people — who may be less inclined to get vaccinated, and we know are less inclined to want to do all these preventive behaviors — we could be in a bad situation.”

She added: “That’s why I’m so vehement about let’s get past going to get vaccinated and let’s just hold the line for a little bit longer” on preventive measures — keeping social circles very small, avoiding large gatherings, especially inside, and wearing masks in public. “Because we all want this to pass.”

Adding to the concern, she noted, are statistics showing that the steady decline in new, daily confirmed infections with the virus has stalled and begun to climb again.

“We still have very high rates of disease in this state,” Van Dijk said. On average over the last seven days, about 450 new infections were recorded per day. That seven-day average for daily new cases is up from “in the 300s or so 10 days ago,” she said. That means the state’s disease burden remains high, even though it falls well below the 6,000-case-a-day numbers of the peak surge in the fall.

While COVID-19 vaccines are 90% or more effective, some people who get the vaccine could still get infected, although research indicates if that happens they probably won’t need hospitalization. That, too, she said, underscores the importance of mitigation efforts.

Van Dijk demurred on another question — the final one of the session: whether the state would institute a new health emergency and mask order once the current one in place expires April 5. “Those are policy questions that are currently under consideration,” she said.

An hour after she spoke those words, the state Supreme Court announced that before the current emergency health order expires, the court will hand down a decision that could determine whether Gov. Tony Evers will be able to even act. The court announced that it will issue a ruling in a lawsuit challenging the governor’s ability to declare multiple emergencies arising from a single overall problem (such as the current pandemic). The decision will be released on Wednesday; the case was argued in November.

During the press club Q&A, Van Dijk suggested that the state Supreme Court’s ruling in May of 2020 that ended Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order blunted some of Wisconsin’s public health messaging.

“People would have taken public health guidance more seriously if we had had the opportunity to put restrictions on what businesses were open and closed as we did earlier in the pandemic,” she said. After the court’s ruling, “when we hit surges in July, and hit surges in the fall — the huge surge we had in the fall — we did not have the same tools in our toolbox as many other states,” which acted to temporarily close bars and restaurants and later limit occupancy. “That was a huge issue in terms of the incredible surge that this state saw,” she said.

Van Dijk said she was also concerned by reports of recent increases in the virus in Michigan and Minnesota.

“This was never a local disease. This was never a state disease. It was never a national disease. This is a global pandemic,” Van Dijk said. “We know state boundaries are arbitrary when it comes to disease transmission.”

Acknowledging that “sometimes people think I’m Debbie Downer,” she continued: “But that’s why I’ve encouraged people to stick close to home for spring break and not travel around the country — particularly to states like Florida that we know are a hotbed of COVID variants —  and we want to avoid bringing these much more infectious variants back into our state before we can get vaccine rates ramped up.”

Van Dijk said that with 30% of the state’s population having begun the vaccination process, Wisconsin has continued to lead the nation in vaccine administration. DHS and local health departments — particularly the Milwaukee Health Department — have also been working to make sure that people whose social conditions make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 get sufficient opportunity to get the vaccine.

Early efforts to do that, including Milwaukee’s targeting of zip codes deemed especially vulnerable, look promising, she said.

DHS also has been consulting with faith groups, including the Wisconsin Council of Churches, to enlist them in helping to persuade people to get the vaccine.

DHS will launch a campaign with a variety of public messages to encourage vaccine participation in April, including customized messages for various areas and populations in the state, Van Dijk said.

Toward the end of the hour, Van Dijk — who appeared remotely from her office and wore a mask — was asked why she wore the face covering when she wasn’t at risk of exposing others or being exposed to the virus.

It’s about sending the public a message, she said.

“I am wearing my mask because we model mask-wearing whenever we are broadcasting live, or being videotaped, where we’ll be broadcast,” said Van Dijk. “Obviously, I am not infecting anyone here in my office, but I am demonstrating that this is still critically important in order for us to contain the spread of this disease.”