Mutant strains help drive continued jump in COVID-19 cases

 No mask mandate? Act like there still is one, state health officials urge

The COVID-19 vaccine site inside the gym of North Division High School. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The COVID-19 vaccine site inside the gym of North Division High School. (Isiah Holmes | Wisconsin Examiner)

Variant strains of the coronavirus now account for more than half of new cases of COVID-19, and the average number of new infections each day has doubled in the last month, state health officials said Thursday.

And while a 4-3 majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the statewide mask mandate a week ago, the public health prescription is to act like it’s still in effect.

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

“We are not ready to go back to life pre-COVID,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) at a pandemic media briefing. “I want to be really clear — there may not be a statewide mask mandate anymore. But that doesn’t decrease one iota the need for everybody to behave as if there is a state mask mandate. The worst thing in the world we can do right now is say, ‘no mandate, no mask.’”

The number of new confirmed cases of COVID 19 in a day topped 1,000 for the first time in nearly two months on Thursday, according to DHS. The seven-day average of cases reached 733 on Thursday — compared with 380 the week of March 10, according to Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer in the Bureau of Communicable Diseases at DHS.

Deaths and hospitalizations are up much less dramatically, but Van Dijk observed that those are lagging indicators of the pandemic

Emerging variants in the virus, led by one first encountered in England and known as B.1.1.7, appear to account for more than half of the new infections. “I expect that in the next few weeks, if not already, B.1.1.7 will be the predominant strain in Wisconsin,” Westergaard said. “The trend is very clearly in that direction everywhere.”

The variants spread more easily than the original SARS CoV-2 virus responsible for the pandemic. So far all three of the available vaccines appear to protect against them, and especially against severe disease or death, but the variant strains still complicate efforts to fight the virus.

“The risk then is that these more dangerous strains of the virus can spread throughout the population, and eventually become the predominant strain that’s going around in the community,” Westergaard said. “And then we’re left with an epidemic that is more difficult to control than the one we had several months ago. Unfortunately, this is exactly what we’re experiencing.”

Thursday DHS began displaying more detailed information on virus variants in the state on a web page it has dedicated to tracking the variants’ spread. About 5-10% of the positive tests for the virus are analyzed more closely to detect variants.

Vaccines haven’t yet been approved for children, and might not be for several months, but children appear to be more susceptible to some of the variants.

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)

“A greater proportion of the cases that we’re seeing this month compared to previous months are children under 18,” Westergaard said. There have been racial and ethnic disparities in who gets the virus, he added — especially in severe forms of the disease.

Wisconsin has identified 88 cases of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), and Westergaard said the condition is about seven times more common among Black children than among white children.  

On the plus side, more than one in three Wisconsin residents have now had at least one vaccination for COVID-19, including more than three out of every four people 65 or older, said Van Dijk. Among that age group, more than 65% have completed their vaccination, which for most requires a two-shot series.

In all, 1.3 million Wisconsin residents have gotten a complete vaccine — either two shots of Pfizer or Moderna inoculations, or a single Johnson & Johnson shot, Van Dijk said. But vaccines alone aren’t yet sufficiently widespread to curb the virus by themselves.

“Let’s be frank — we know people have pandemic fatigue and are ready to be done with this,” Van Dijk said. “But let’s also be frank — that we don’t want to be done with this with hundreds and hundreds more of our friends and family having lost their lives if we fail to keep at it for a bit more time.”

Wisconsin “is racing against the variants with the vaccine” — and that means, she added, besides continuing to mask, avoid crowds and maintain physical distance with others, people need to get vaccinated and encourage friends and family who might be hesitant to get vaccinated as well. “How we can all support each other in getting our vaccine, because our vaccine is what will help us start to tamp down the variants.”

Westergaard urged caution before relaxing any public health guidelines beyond the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has stated that fully vaccinated people can safely engage in very small, limited indoor gatherings without masks.

“I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of loosening anything,” he said. Even without a mask mandate, suggesting that communities, businesses and especially schools might dispense with masking “would be a grave mistake.”

Media and public figures can set examples for continuing to observe the needed precautions, Westergaard added: “The more we can spread the word, the more we can engage thought leaders and opinion leaders to make these things normal and respected activities, I think the better off we’ll be.”

“The answer to getting through to the other side of this pandemic is not vaccines or masks,” Van Dijk said. “It’s vaccines and masks.”