COVID-19 rises again as rapidly spreading Delta mutation takes hold

By: - July 23, 2021 10:23 am

“Maskphalt” (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Wisconsin’s daily count of new COVID-19 cases has nearly tripled in the last two weeks, and for state health officials, that trend added urgency Thursday to their longstanding plea for more people to get vaccinated.

The state’s seven-day average of confirmed cases Thursday was 242 cases per day, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) — 2.8 times the daily seven-day average two weeks ago. Cases are also rising in every other state, she told reporters during an online news conference.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the state have nearly doubled, Van Dijk added, to 143 people as of Wednesday from 74 people two weeks previously. Ryan Westergaard, a physician and chief medical officer in the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases, said the rise in hospitalization is concentrated in two regions, southeast Wisconsin and the Fox Valley.  

Wisconsin DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk at an online media briefing July 22. (Screen capture | YouTube)

“Nearly all of these patients could have avoided this fate if they had been vaccinated,” said Van Dijk. According to national data, she added, the vast majority of patients who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 or died from it have not completed the vaccination process.

As of Thursday, DHS reported that almost 50% of state residents have completed vaccination. 

The resurgence is due to the large number of people in the state who haven’t been vaccinated as well as the continued spread of virus mutations, including the delta variant that now accounts for more than 80% of all coronavirus samples that are analyzed for their genetic components, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“This variant is extremely infectious, and it will spread even more quickly than any form of COVID we have seen to date, and it will spread most effectively to those who are not vaccinated,” Van Dijk said.

Westergaard and Van Dijk both repeatedly emphasized during the 50-minute news conference the importance of getting a COVID-19 vaccine for anyone who is eligible. “No part of our state is adequately vaccinated,” said Van Dijk. The state has set a goal of vaccinating 80% of all residents. “There is no county in the state that has achieved that.”

‘Break-through cases’

While there have been so-called break-through cases in which vaccinated people have become infected, they so far represent less than 2% of all confirmed infections in the state from January through July, said Westergaard. They are an even smaller fraction of people who have had the most severe symptoms, he added. 

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In anticipation of the school year that will start in September, Van Dijk and Westergaard urged that parents arrange for their children ages 12 to 17 to get vaccinated as soon as possible and that college students do so as well.

The Pfizer vaccine is the only one of the three vaccines available that has been approved for children as young as 12. Because that shot is given in two doses three weeks apart, with another two weeks after the second dose to confer full immunity, “kids need to get vaccinated now to be fully protected by the time school starts,” Van Dijk said.

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)

Westergaard said now is also “the ideal time for people who will be attending universities in the fall to get vaccinated, so they’re fully protected by the time they come back.” The fall 2020 surge in COVID-19 cases was triggered in part by the return of students to campuses in late August and early September, he said.

By ensuring everyone returning to campus is vaccinated in time, “we can prevent that phenomenon from happening of people’s increasing transmission on campus settings and spilling over into the community,” Westergaard said. “There’s no reason to expect that that needs to happen, and all we need to do is really persist in increasing vaccination in order to prevent it.”

Van Dijk said DHS is encouraging colleges and universities to offer vaccination at events such as orientation meetings during the summer. 

Plenty of vaccination doses are available with pharmacies and other providers across the state, she said, and outreach to people who are less likely to have easy access is also underway. Doctors and other health care providers are also being urged to offer COVID-19 vaccines in virtually any situation in which they encounter patients, she added.

In the fall, in addition to a COVID-19 testing program that will be available in K-12 schools, DHS is also working with schools to establish community vaccination clinic sites.

Van Dijk called on employers to “be very supportive of their employees getting vaccinated” by offering paid sick time to get the shot and to recover from any side effects they might experience.

Misinformation concerns

Many people who have declined vaccination to date have been exposed to “incorrect information about vaccines via social media, or friends or family members who were also informed by errant sources,” Van Dijk said. DHS has launched a public service media campaign with local doctors around the state discussing the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

“What is true is that vaccines are safe and vaccines are effective,” Van Dijk said. “And without a vaccine, you are a sitting duck for COVID-19.”

Westergaard said he has spoken “with people who are skeptical about the vaccine, and it’s been generally pretty productive.” Some patients have delayed getting the shot simply because they were waiting to discuss it with a health profession, he observed. 

“People who decline a vaccine at one point are not necessarily going to always decline a vaccine,” said Westergaard. “One of the most useful things in helping people change their mind is having a conversation with a health care provider that they know and trust, and have some experience with.”

Van Dijk also urged people to be ready to don masks again, even if they are vaccinated.

While there is no state mask mandate for schools, she noted that for children younger than 12 who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, the CDC has recommended masking in the classroom, and encouraged staff, teachers and other adults in the school with them to mask as well in order to serve as role models. 

If disease rates increase and vaccination rates remain low, schools can respond by requiring masks “to protect all our kids,” Van Dijk said. “And you know what, the kids for the most part are just fine with that. They understand and they want to be in school.”

Adults, vaccinated or not, might take that to heart as well, she said — especially in crowds such as the 65,000 fans who crowded into Milwaukee’s Deer District Tuesday night to watch on giant-screens as the Milwaukee Bucks clinched the NBA championship inside the Fiserv Forum arena.

“We’re really proud of our state and our incredible basketball team,” said Van Dijk. But, she added, the scenes broadcast on television as fans swarmed in excitement — as many as half of whom might not have been vaccinated, and who for the most part were unmasked — left health officials “concerned.”

“I anticipate we’ll see additional cases as a result of those gatherings,” Van Dijk said. “If we want to continue to have those kinds of gatherings” — and not risk spreading the virus — “we need to all get vaccinated. And if you’re not vaccinated, wear a mask.”

Or, for that matter, if you are vaccinated, she added: “And honestly, even when lots of people are close together like that, whether you’re inside or outside, it makes a lot of sense for everybody to wear a mask in those situations.”

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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.

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