New data show the cost of forgoing the COVID-19 shot

State breaks out details of infections and outcomes based on vaccination status

By: - August 20, 2021 7:00 am
Close up of nurse hanks giving vaccine to patient in clinic.

Nurse giving vaccine to patient in clinic | Adobe stock

Wisconsinites who weren’t fully vaccinated for the coronavirus were nearly three times as likely to get infected in July as fully vaccinated people, according to new state health data released Thursday. And those who were less than fully vaccinated were nearly four times as likely to need hospital care and more than 10 times as likely to die.

The state Department of Health Services (DHS) published the information this week on its website, where it will begin posting monthly reports that track the vaccine status of Wisconsin COVID-19 patients.

“The overwhelming majority of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 burden comes from people who are not fully vaccinated,” said Traci DeSalvo, director of the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases, during an online news briefing Thursday. “The data show clearly that COVID-19 vaccines are doing their job by preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death.”

In July, there were 125.4 cases of COVID-19 for every 100,000 fully vaccinated people in the state, including 4.9 people who were hospitalized. The COVID-19 death rate for fully vaccinated people was 1 person per 1 million — 0.1 per 100,000.

By contrast, in July there were 369.2 cases for every 100,000 people who weren’t fully vaccinated, with 18.2 people hospitalized. One out of 100,000 people in the not fully vaccinated group died of COVID-19 in July, according to DHS.

We are clearly seeing a surge in cases.

– Traci DeSalvo, DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases director

The “fully vaccinated” category consists only of people who had completed all their shots (two if from Pfizer or from Moderna, and one if from Johnson & Johnson) and who also were at least 14 days past their last shot — the threshold that public health specialists have set for full immunity from the vaccine.

Across the state, 50.4% of Wisconsin residents are now fully vaccinated, according to DHS.

The “not fully vaccinated” group is everyone else: people who have never had the vaccine, who have only had one shot of a two-shot series, or who have had all their shots but not passed the 14-day post-shot period.

Surge continues

The numbers show that COVID-19 vaccines have succeeded in protecting most fully vaccinated people from being infected at all, and in protecting those who do get sick from the most serious outcomes of the disease, DeSalvo said.

Nevertheless, as community spread increases, mainly due to the growing dominance of the much more contagious delta mutation, “we are clearly seeing a surge in cases,” she said. “And with that we are now seeing a surge in hospitalizations and deaths.”

On Wednesday, DHS added 1,569 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number since the start of the pandemic to 642,969. Over the last seven days, the average number of new cases each day stands at 1,223.

A total of 7,503 people have been confirmed to have died from the virus in Wisconsin. The rate of deaths has been rising in the last week, with a seven-day average of 5 a day as of Wednesday.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Wisconsin Hospital Association reported that 712 people were hospitalized for COVID-19, with 222 of them — nearly one in three — in intensive care.

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

“We’re bracing for the pandemic to get worse,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the DHS communicable disease bureau.

At a separate briefing for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), Dr. John Raymond, president of the Medical College of Wisconsin, warned that more than 90% of the state’s intensive care unit beds are occupied already, a mix that includes COVID-19 patients as well as other patients. “And we’re still on the upsurge,” he said.

Raymond pointed to recent surges in Missouri, Arkansas and other southern states. “If we’re not more vaccinated than these other states, if people aren’t protecting themselves to a different degree with mitigation measures than in other states,” he said, “we probably shouldn’t expect to have a different outcome.”

Rethinking returns

The rebounding case numbers have led some employers that sent workers home to telecommute early in the pandemic to revise their plans for coming back to the office.

The Medical College of Wisconsin, located in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, had until recently planned to have employees return to working on site starting after Labor Day. “And we’ve pushed that back to November 1,” Raymond said. “And you know we may even have to push it back a little bit further.”

If we want to make schools as safe as possible, we have everyone wear a mask — staff, students and visitors.

– Dr. Ryan Westergaard, DHS chief medical officer

The way out of the current trends, health officials reiterated Thursday, is to double down on vaccination — and until vaccination rates go way up and cases come way back down, to don masks in public and maintain social distancing.

With classes on the verge of resuming, Westergaard urged that schools follow the recommendation that DHS has been making, in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, that schools institute universal masking.

“If we want to make schools as safe as possible,” he said, “we have everyone wear a mask — staff, students and visitors.”

He acknowledged however, that some school systems are still making masks optional. “We are very respectful of the conversations that people are having — the strong opinions that people are having,” Westergaard said.

For parents concerned for their children’s safety when masks are not required, “my advice would be, number one, respectfully and actively take part in those conversations — to try to increase the safety of our schools by increasing masks in schools,” he continued. “The second would be to keep children as safe as they can by encouraging their children to wear masks — particularly well-fitting masks.”

Reaching the unvaccinated

To increase vaccination, health providers will need to continue to reach out to people reluctant to get the shot — but also to remove barriers that might still make it too difficult for some people who are otherwise willing to be vaccinated, according to Dr. Ben Weston, medical director for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

Speaking on the MMAC briefing, Weston said that he believed many more unvaccinated Wisconsin residents can still be persuaded to join the ranks of the vaccinated.

The research he has read suggests that only about 10-12% of the population “just refuses to get vaccinated,” Weston said. But there are many other people who simply have questions “that they just want heard and answered” and who can be persuaded by others who listen carefully and respectfully, he added.

Another overlapping group consists of people for whom getting the shot is difficult because of barriers in their lives.

“You can imagine if you are a single mother with three kids, and you work two jobs, and you don’t have a car and Sunday is your only day off,” Weston said. “And if you want to get vaccinated, you’re going on the bus with those three kids and take them across town to a vaccine site. And oh, by the way, every time you log on Facebook, you’re seeing ads about how the vaccine does this terrible thing. I don’t know that your motivation is there to haul those three kids on the bus and drive across town.”

To reach people in that group will take “continued messaging, continued education, and then breaking down those barriers,” Weston said, “making the vaccine available where that person is, whether it’s at the grocery store, whether it’s at State Fair, wherever it is.”

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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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